A Personal Reflection On President Obama’s ‘Evolution’
To this day, I remember watching the 2004 vice-presidential debate as a freshman in high school and hearing Senator John Edwards (D-NC) speak about his opposition to marriage equality. I remember how my heart sank; I remember feeling like I was worth less than my straight friends.
I remember, when I was 15, learning that only 40% or so of Americans felt that gay relationships were “morally acceptable.” I remember admonishing myself to never come out of the closet if I ever wanted to be successful in life.
I remember watching President George W. Bush endorse the Federal Marriage Amendment when I was 16. I remember watching the anti-gay referenda pass in 2004, and then again in 2008. I remember wondering – having been told so many times that it was the case – whether maybe there really was something wrong with me.
So last week, when my President announced that he supported marriage equality – despite the fact that he said he wants to leave it to the states to decide; despite the fact that it came too late for North Carolina or California or for all the gay kids who killed themselves; despite his failure to sign an executive order banning anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors – I, an incorrigible, unsatisfiable cynic, was actually happy.
Both the announcement and how happy I was took me by surprise. I was happy because, for the first time, my President recognized me – and every other gay, lesbian and bisexual American – not as less-than but as equally deserving of the respect and dignity that the right to marriage confers. And I was happy because, for the first time, I felt I could take seriously his rhetoric about supporting equality for LGBT people.
Any person who questions the significance of the President’s historic support for marriage equality needs to stop for a moment and think about the messages that LGBT teens hear on a daily basis from some political and religious leaders in this country. A cursory glance at how people have spoken about LGBT equality and individuals over the last decade reveals a shocking disregard for our humanity: from hate-filled city council meetings to television, kids receive the harmful message that being gay is not okay. Even in their own homes, LGBT teenagers face threats: Up to a quarter of LGBT kids who came out to their parents were kicked out because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The President’s affirmation last week – particularly in the absence of that message emanating from our communities, schools, culture and homes – is therefore vitally important.
That said, the approach taken by Andrew Sullivan, among others, of whitewashing the President’s record on LGBT equality is a grave mistake. Each step of the way, the LGBT community has had to put pressure on the President and Congress to make any progress: for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; for the advancement of anti-discrimination legislation, or even an executive order banning anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors; for federal programs and curricula to be LGBT inclusive; and other priorities. Although this administration has done more for the LGBT community than any other, let’s not pretend that it was done without any pressure from our community and our allies.
There remains much work to be done before LGBT Americans are treated as first-class citizens. But, for now, I’m going to celebrate.
Image courtesy of the New Yorker.