By Drew Gibson
To hear President Obama and his cabinet speak of his “evolving” stance regarding gay marriage, one could be forgiven for assuming that the President was speaking of his own personal views towards the issue. Yet, in a recently cited questionnaire published in the now-defunct gay magazine Outlines during his 1996 campaign for the Illinois Senate, President Obama seemed to be fully evolved. Then state-senate candidate Obama responded that he “favor[ed] legalizing same sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” Following his inauguration in 2009, Obama announced that he would cease to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by then-President Clinton in 1996 and defined marriage as strictly being a union between a man and a woman. The President also repealed the controversial and discriminatory Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law that forbade openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military.
Most of the President’s record regarding the institution of gay and lesbian marriage reflects that of a man who fully supports the idea, yet won’t openly endorse it for fear of political blowback. It would appear, from an outsider’s perspective, that the evolution referred to in the President’s stance on same-sex marriage refers not to his personal beliefs but to public opinion on the matter. The Obama White House is taking a gamble in explicitly stating support for gay and lesbian marriage that the country is ready to support gay and lesbian marriage. In an election where the outcome will ultimately be decided by a handful of swing states as per usual, the fear is that support for same-sex marriage would turn off crucial moderate voters in places like Ohio, Florida and Virginia. However, this was a risk that the President had to take to show the world that he was on the right side of the inevitable generational sea change regarding LGBT relations that is sure to come to fruition within the next few years.
A lot of press was given recently to the passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, which officially defines marriage as between a man and a woman within the North Carolina constitution. North Carolina is the 30th state to adopt such an amendment and the 61% of North Carolinians who voted for it at the ballot box gave yet another shot across the bow at perceived enemies of traditional marriage. Such sentiments are understandable if not endorsable from a group of Americans who feel as though their personal morality has been under attack recently. Yet, I would point to the “evolution” of the institution of marriage in this country and abroad to question the validity of the argument for defining marriage based on tradition and precedent.
Before the 18th century and the birth of the Enlightenment, the idea of marriage for romantic or personal reasons in Europe and America wasn’t acknowledged. The institution of marriage was predominantly a way to join together two households and ensure the future fiscal and procreative health of the people involved. Arranged marriages were quite common and were more economic than social in their nature. In America and Britain throughout the majority of the 19th century, the law of the land was something known as coverture, which can best be described as government-sponsored, gender-specific slavery. As described in William Blackstone’s Commentary on the Laws of England, man and woman became one entity upon marriage and stated that, “the very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband.” This decimation of the rights of women was enacted in many states during the 19th Century in the Married Women’s Property Acts.
As ThinkProgress pointed out shortly after the passage of Amendment 1, the last time that a amendment was passed in the North Carolina constitution was to outlaw interracial marriage back in 1875. The amendment stated that, “all marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the third generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited.” And if you feel inclined to chalk this up as ancient history, I would gently remind readers that it was only 45 years ago that the Supreme Court deemed all anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional and at that time 16 states had bans on interracial marriage. Not so coincidentally 15 of those 16 of those states currently have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, while Delaware merely has a statute banning same-sex marriage.
Supporting same-sex marriages was something that the Obama Administration had to sooner, rather than later. By doing so they are aligning themselves with the future and not with the past. While it is possible to see the move as a political liability for the upcoming election, it will be a boon for future elections as the GOP will continue to back itself into an increasingly tight conservative corner. Young twenty-somethings of all stripes don’t really see the big deal about same-sex marriage and, as President Obama pointed out when referencing his daughters and their school friends with same-sex parents, today’s children will grow up to be even more tolerant and broad-minded. People made light of Vice President Biden citing shows like Will & Grace as being influential in the shaping of American views on gays and lesbians, but there is a great deal of truth to it. The idea that an openly lesbian woman like Ellen Degeneres would have the nation’s most popular daytime talk show would have been unthinkable even 15 years ago. Through television and through beloved relatives feeling empowered to come out to friends and family about their sexuality, it is becoming nearly impossible not to feel kinship or affinity for members of the LGBT community, no matter what your personal or religious beliefs. In twenty years, we’ll look back on this announcement and we won’t be wondering about its morality or political soundness…we’ll be wondering why it took so damn long to happen.