The XX Factor

Why Obama’s Motivations for Supporting Gay Marriage Don’t Matter

A patron watches the news at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village shorty after President Obama today announced that he now supports same-sex marriage. 

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages

Amanda, your point that many Americans are increasingly apathetic about gay rights (in a good way!) is wonderfully incisive. The risk posed to the president’s re-election campaign by his speaking in support of gay marriage yesterday is minimal; anyone who is going to have a hissy fit about the issue had already consigned Obama to the pro-marriage-equality side anyway. And as Linda Hirshman wrote in Slate, even the black community—which has been held in suspicion regarding gay rights since the accusation that they facilitated the passage of Proposition 8 in California—isn’t likely to abandon the “miracle of Grant Park” over this “evolution” of heart. In light of these basic political considerations, it could be tempting to dismiss yesterday’s announcement as little more than a Biden-forced outing of a pre-polled position or, perhaps worse, a mere fundraising ploy.

But, listening to Obama’s words yesterday afternoon, I didn’t care about his motivations.  

Despite the great strides toward LGBT acceptance that our society has made over the past few decades, being gay in America can still be an anxiety-filled existence. Even in a gay mecca like New York City, I find myself almost constantly self-aware: I’m an expert at policing my posture, my clothes (too colorful for this neighborhood?), my mannerisms, my depth of voice. The proximity of my thigh to my partner’s on the subway is cause for complicated internal debates: Is that guy glaring at us? Should I care? Should we change cars? Screw him! Avoid eye contact. Don’t share headphones. Maybe it’s safer to pretend to be straight friends …

When you’ve been verbally assaulted and poked up your drag-for-Halloween skirt with a walking stick in Chelsea (!), you get paranoid. Maybe all those people who are “cool with gays” are just a drink or two away from manifesting a hostile collective unconscious that’s still simmering just below the surface.  

And these kinds of quotidian concerns don’t even begin to broach larger issues of equality—the right to marry being only one—that are denied to queer partners under current law. In this context, hearing an authority figure like Obama speak thoughtfully, humbly, and candidly about not just marriage, but, by extension, my basic humanity, means a great deal indeed.

Nathaniel Frank wrote in these pages yesterday of the gay community’s tendency in the past to seek privacy from society and the law—you don’t have to like us, but at least leave us our bars, our ghettos, preferred industries, special sensibilities—and part of me revels in that shadow land. But the truth is, not everyone can (or should even want to) migrate there anymore. The closet has been wrenched open by science, pop culture, the media, consumerism, and other forces, allowing many gay people to come out to both themselves and others at earlier ages than ever before. But a 13-year-old living in Mississippi doesn’t have the resources to remake herself in San Francisco; with the ability to “be oneself” comes an intense pressure, too, and that, met with a lack of larger cultural support, can breed depression, or worse.

But here’s the president of the United States—a straight family-man who plays pick-up basketball and is not a radical queer activist—saying you’re all right. At a time in his career when it might have been easier to keep silent, he acknowledges you, your desires, your daydreams, your worthiness to love and be loved. Of course, we can debate how brave this action actually was, just as we can debate the merits of a inherently conservative institution like marriage and the perhaps too-giddy rush of much of the gay movement to assimilate through it.

But there’s no quibbling with the fact that having the Commander-in-Chief on your side makes dealing with the bullies—whether they’re at school, on the Internet, at Thanksgiving dinner, or on a darkened street in Chelsea—a hell of a lot easier.