The XX Factor

Obama’s Move on Gay Rights: Not Really a “First Step”

The talking point about Obama’s memo on domestic partnerships is that “It’s a first step .” Obama said it, and John Berry, the openly gay head of the Office of Personnel Management, has been repeating it all day. The implication is that the administration is ready to march proudly down the path of ever more gay freedom and equality. This strikes me as only half believable, as Emily pointed out yesterday. All the administration did was scan the existing law and see where they could apply it without violating the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). That counts as barely a step at all. The next “step,” Berry said on the radio today , is the hate crimes law, which, as Andrew Sullivan often points out, is mostly symbolic and makes very little difference in anyone’s life . And as gay rights advocates say, the administration went beyond the call of duty in its brief taking on a challenge to DOMA. They defended the essence of the act , calling heterosexual marriage the “traditionally and universally recognized form” (not true, see California, Iowa, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut) and arguably lumping gay marriage with incest.

My suspicion is that despite his campaign promise, Obama is genuinely conflicted about DOMA. In California, the fight against gay marriage was led by black churches, and Obama must have been exposed to that sentiment over the years. This is why this feels like the first instance of Obama behaving in a disingenuous way. More honest would be to treat gay rights as he treated race and abortion, and give a full throttled speech about strong convictions on all sides, which would surface the contradictions. Instead, he is uncharacteristically mumbling his way through this one, putting forth the chipper gay bureaucrat to do his talking for him.