The XX Factor

Biden’s Comments and North Carolina’s Amendment 1 Intensify Gay Marriage Debate

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It’s only Monday, but already this appears to be a big week for gay marriage.

Yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden sounded a pick-up note with the nebulous comment that he is “absolutely comfortable” with all manner of wedding cake topper configurations. Political parsers and gay advocates immediately began debating what the famously gut-speaking VP could have meant: Was the Obama administration communicating a more definite statement about marriage equality? Is the President done “evolving”? Did Biden just have a little word-vomit?

Here’s the actual statement in question:

BIDEN: Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.  And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction – beyond that.

Howard Kurtz over at the Daily Beast read the rambling as old-fashioned political calculation, and I’m inclined to agree. As Kurtz points out, it’s highly likely that Biden was deployed at precisely this moment to “mollify” gay rights activists who have been disappointed with the President’s reticence on the marriage issue, especially in light of his controversial—and frankly, baffling—decision last month not to sign an executive order banning sexual orientation discrimination among federal contractors.

Obama is undoubtedly hedging his bets this election year; reigniting the culture wars (as some commentators have suggested he risks doing by coming out wholesale for marriage equality) would probably not be useful going into November.

However, at some point this kind of political prevarication is going to have to give way to principle. Though the cultural mood in this country regarding homosexuality has been morphing in the right direction for a number of years now, waiting for the zeitgeist or generational turn-over to solve everything isn’t going to help those citizens affected in the meantime by dangerously reactionary legislation.

Take, for example, North Carolina’s Amendment 1.

Citizens of that state will be voting tomorrow on an amendment to their constitution that would not only prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions, but that also has the potential to legally delegitimize any family—gay or straight—that doesn’t adhere to the limited definition of heterosexual marriage it proscribes. The measure is so shoddily (or craftily, depending on your level of cynicism) written that a large percentage of voters don’t even understand the full extent of its reach. Yet, polling predicts that the amendment will pass smoothly tomorrow, and if it does, North Carolina will become hostile, drive-around territory for gay couples and many others.  

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Obama could single-handedly stop this nasty legislation—that’s not how our system works. But having the most important leader in the country come out not just against this measure (as he has done), but in favor of true self-determination and equal protection in matters of marriage, sex and love would go a long way toward accelerating the cultural shift.  

With the Biden comments and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan voicing his support of gay marriage earlier today, the pressure has increased on the president, and rightfully so—I hope he’s up to the challenge.