America Is Evolving Towards Justice

Terrance Heath

President Obama nearly cost me five bucks. In the build-up to his historic interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, a co-worker announced that he would bet $5 that President Obama would end his evolution on same-sex marriage by announcing his support for marriage equality. At least at least one person took him up on it.

If I were a gambling man, I’d have made that bet; certain that by the end of the day I’d have an extra $5 in my pocket. In fact, I was so sure of it that I almost made that bet, though I would have taken no pleasure in winning. Of course, I now know I would have lost. But it’s a bet I would have been happy to lose.

After more than as an LGBT activist and and a Democratic voter/volunteer/contributor, I was not optimistic. Nothing in my experience suggested to me that President Obama would announce his support for marriage equality.

I am a forty-three year old black, gay man, with a wonderful husband and two great kids. I have voted in every local, state and national election since I’ve been of voting age. I’ve always voted Democratic. I’ve donated my time and money to get Democrats elected at all levels of government. I’ve often done so with a sense of frustration that I was giving my vote, time, energy, and money to a party and candidates that did not always stand up for me or my family.

I often felt I was casting my vote against those who would enact policies that would harm my family, rather than for someone who would stand with us and for us. My father’s advice on voting often ran in my ears. “If you can’t find someone to vote for,” he said, “then find someone to vote against. But vote.”

The last time I was truly passionate about a presidential candidate was in 1992, when Bill Clinton said to gay and lesbian Americans, “I have a vision, and you are a part of it.” There have been many disappointments since then. I’ve often felt that I had no party, let alone a president, that would support my family as we supported them.

Election Night 2008 was one of extremely mixed emotions for me, and probably for many other LGBT Americans and their families. Barack Obama’s historic win that night was something I thought I’d never see. It signaled to me, as it did to many others, that America had changed in a way that our forebears had hoped, prayed, and worked for.

As I wrote the next day, America had a “mountaintop moment.” However, we reached that peak only to see the valley that yet lay before us, and many more mountains to climb besides. The exhilaration that followed Barack Obama’s election victory was quickly extinguished by the passage of Proposition 8 in California — which stripped same-sex couples of the rights and protections of marriage, after California’s Supreme Court ruled that the state had no basis for denying those rights to same-sex couples.

Overnight, “Yes, we can,” became “No, we can’t.” Joyful tears on election night were replaced by bitter tears the morning after.

The Prop. 8 defeat was a particularly painful, because so many of us had been inspired by Barack Obama’s candidacy. We volunteered, canvassed, and raised money to get him elected. We were inspired by his speech at the 2004 convention, because — like another before him — he included us. Yet, by 2008 there was that old familiar frustration. Obama was head and shoulders above the Republican nominee on LGBT issues. But when it came to the question of marriage equality, that famous campaign slogan acquired a modifier. “Yes, we can. But…”

Many of us, myself included, felt that on marriage equality Obama’s political positioning didn’t reflect his personal convictions. Michael Tomasky wrote before the president’s ABC interview, that Obama would be against marriage equality didn’t make sense. It did’t jibe with anything else about who him. Neither did his “evolving” state, since 2010.

I don’t know exactly what led to the president’s announcement of his support for marriage equality. I’m not privy to his thoughts, or the deliberations of his re-election campaign. There were probably many factors, and politics was one of them. Timing may have been another.

The North Carolina vote came on the heels of the Romney campaign’s public mishandling of the hiring and resignation of an advisor who happened to be openly gay (and an advocate for marriage equality). The former, combined with the fact that Obama will accept the Democratic nomination at the convention in North Carolina, guaranteed that Obama would be asked about his “evolution.” (Not to mention that maintaining that “evolving” state after North Carolina would have made for some very awkward fundraisers.) The latter was an irresistible opportunity to show how much more evolved the president is than his opponent.

Perhaps the president’s announcement was a political maneuver, that gave him an opportunity to defuse an issue well ahead of election day, show up his opponent, and buoy relations with an important constituency. Maybe his “evolution” was a ploy to keep his personal convictions ambiguous and avoid possible political consequences.

I don’t care.

That’s right. I don’t care.

Yesterday, the President of the United States voiced his support for equal rights and protections for my family. That’s a civil rights milestone the likes of which we haven’t seen since the LBJ. From “We the people,” to “Yes, we can,” what has made America truly exceptional are the progressive movements that worked to ensure that more and more of us are included in that “we.”

Maybe the president didn’t really “evolve” at all. Maybe all that changed is that making his personal convictions public is less of a political risk than it was.

Again, I don’t care. The important thing that we evolved — those of us who made commitments to each other, and set about creating our families without waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. We have evolved, and have brought the rest of the world with us. Now, that includes Barack Obama.

We evolved, and the country is evolving with us. If it’s politically safer to support marriage equality now, because public support for marriage equality has increased rapidly in a just a few years, it’s because we made that happen. We evolved and have brought the country with us, one commitment ceremony or PTA meeting at a time.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama was not quite ready to say, as he did Wednesday, that he supports same sex marriage, but he conceded at the time that “attitudes evolve, including mine.” In a question and answer session with progressive bloggers in October 2010, Obama was quoted by Americablog’s Joe Sudbay saying “it’s pretty clear where the trendlines are going.”

If the president was thinking of the trends in public opinion polls, his read was dead-on. Surveys by various national media pollsters have shown a consistent, ongoing trend toward support of same-sex marriage, with slightly more Americans offering support than opposition in measurements taken over the past year.

For example, a just completed national Gallup poll fielded May 3-6 shows 50 percent in support of same-sex marriage and 48 percent opposed, slightly down from 53 percent support a year ago. As Gallup explained, the latest result marks “only the second time in Gallup’s history of tracking this question” that support exceeded opposition.

We did that.

Bob Borosage led his post with Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As I’ve written before, that bend doesn’t just happen. If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it’s because many of us have working hard to bend it in that direction. If the president is lending his hands to that work, even symbolically, I welcome him. There is no such thing as “too little, to late” in that work.

If the president had to take a public position, because public and political pressure forced his hand, it’s because our movement made him do it.

In the immediate sense, it was apparently the comments by Joe Biden (and to a secondary extent Education Secretary Arne Duncan) that forced the president’s hand, leading to his historic announcement in support of same-sex marriage. But in the deeper and more long-lasting sense, the movement made him do it. That’s exactly how politics on the left is supposed to work.

Franklin Roosevelt had the famous phrase: “Make me do it.” He was speaking to activists for the labor movement or some other faction fighting for a slice of the pie, and he was saying to them, don’t expect me to back you out of the kindness of my heart, even if in my heart I agree with you. This is politics, and you have to create the conditions that make it possible for me to support your cause. And that’s what the LGBT movement did.

I don’t pretend that Obama’s announcement changes everything. My family has no more protections today than it did before. North Carolina’s amendment still stands, as do similar amendment in other states. More states will face referendums on marriage equality; including my own, where the state legislature passed marriage equality, and the governor signed it into law.

It does change some very important things, as it does anytime a noteworthy person “comes out.” Whether Obama’s public support or marriage equality makes it easier for more Democrats to follow his example, or merely launches a few more “evolutions” as people discuss and consider the issue, it makes a difference. Even David Frum, a Republicans, says it’s a game-changer that further distinguishes Democrats from Republicans in ways that will become more important down the line.

The statement changes everything because it locks in place for another generation the Brand ID of Democrats as the party of cultural modernity. This Brand ID fits uneasily upon the Democrats, for they are also the party of ethnic minorities and recent immigrants. With the president’s statement, however, the modernists have gained the clear upper hand. Meanwhile on the Republican side of aisle, the cultural modernists keep losing. For all that people talk about the ascendancy of the Koch Brothers within the GOP, I’d venture that Charles and David feel about same-sex marriage almost exactly as President Obama does. Yet on this one, they lose.

The statement changes everything because it radically advances the countdown to the final, national settlement of the issue within the next few years. It was never going to be workable to have couples becoming married and unmarried as they crossed successive state lines up and down I-95. The country must on this be all one thing, or all the other.

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president — while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

The night President Obama won the election, I heard a commentator say that Americans had just elected president a man whose parents’ marriage would have been illegal in many states 40 years ago. That night I wrote that if either of my sons is elected president 40 years from now, the same could be said of them.

Today, I have a little more hope that those circumstances will change; not because of President Obama’s statement, but because of what signifies that we are “evolving” towards justice. And however far we have yet to go, it’s good to take a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come.

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