Crumbs from the Table: Obama and Gay Marriage

“I favour legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriage” – Barack Obama in 1996

“They don’t have any thoughts – they have emotional responses” – Gore Vidal, when discussing gay marriage, on the American people

Yesterday a British friend excitedly told me that she had ‘leapt into the air’ when she heard of President Obama’s comments on gay marriage, believing that “he’s won the next election!” Across social media sites people were falling over themselves to praise the President for his courage, his righteous morality, his decency. I was sent links which implored me to sign a ‘thank you’ card which is to be sent to the White House. The inevitable slew of broadsheet columns were overwhelmingly positive; some wearily observed that it was possible to be cynical about the comments but credited Obama for his skilful politics in cornering Mitt Romney on the issue.

It seems that it’s game, set and match – Obama is a good guy. He’s progressive, he’s liberal and he’s one of us. The disappointments have been washed away, cleansed in the serene waters of ‘saying nice things about gay people’.

Even as I write this, I’m well aware of what the response of many would/will be to it: I’m cynical; a Trot; ungrateful, unrealistic and unfair; I am that worst of all creatures – a negative person. In fact I’ve written before about the totemic elevation of an issue like gay marriage above all other concerns, even other human rights ones. Well, it doesn’t get any more elevated than this.

Taking the comments entirely on their own merit, I agree that it’s a good thing for the President to personally support equal rights. I can appreciate that it in the toxic climate of American politics, it can be viewed as a big deal. However I don’t see what is gained in hysteric gratitude for some crumbs from the table. Some blogs have already noted that Obama’s ‘evolution’ on gay marriage seemed to begin with whole-hearted support (the quote above). The further he edged onto the national stage, the more opaque his views became. Then, when he was preparing to run for President (and indeed when he did so), he was wholeheartedly against gay marriage. In the years since, the profile of the issue has grown tremendously, to the point where it seems to threaten the supremacy of abortion and reproductive rights as totemic ‘liberal’ issues. So, in the midst of fundraising season for an upcoming election, President Obama speaks out. He speaks out after the Vice-President speaks out (which was, depending on who you believe, a ‘gaff’ which bounced Obama into speaking, or a ‘test-run’ for it – I’d go for the latter). He speaks out while his aides brief the media, “It’s not like we’re trying to pass legislation”. He speaks out while simultaneously washing his hands of the issue, pushing responsibility for it to individual states. So yes, I am cynical about the ‘endorsement’ but I can’t fathom how anyone couldn’t be. The President has made some personal comments which serve to shore up his electoral base in an election year, instantly portray his opponent as a reactionary bigot and eclipse many of his administration’s human rights abuses – all without actually intending to do anything! As one tweet put it yesterday

Obama has endorsed gay marriage the same way he endorsed ending torture, closing Guantanamo, and limiting illegal settlements

Yet his words have been greeted as some kind of latter-day Emancipation Proclamation. This is a very deliberate comparison because you can be certain that, very early in any discussion of gay marriage, someone (usually a white gay man) will compare it to slavery and/or racial segregation. There are grand claims about it being the ‘last great civil rights issue’ (which, incidentally, I’m sure many under the ‘T’ of ‘LGBT’ would take issue with). I have watched open-mouthed as these statements have been shared again and again without challenge. Does no-one see the problem in (more often than not) privileged white people describing themselves as victims of something akin to the brutal and systemic oppression of an entire people based on the colour of their skin?! I have at times almost expected someone to compare the legal inability to call your relationship a ‘marriage’ to the holocaust, such has been the grotesque self-pity on display. From where I’m sitting the lack of ‘gay marriage’ is not preventing gay people in the Western world from fully participating in society and indeed rising to positions of power within it. To borrow Marxist terminology, the issue of gay marriage does not prevent you from being part of the ruling class and enjoying all of the privileges inherent to that position.

Class is one of (perhaps the) most fundamental issue which is papered over by the fixation on gay marriage. Arguments in favour of it appeal to healthcare rights, social benefits, taxation and wealth – there is absolutely no acknowledgement or even recognition that gay marriage won’t make the slightest difference to the structural inequalities which mean that a wealthy gay man and a homeless gay man will never experience these rights and benefits in remotely the same way. Just as I’ve argued that a fundamental belief in human rights must apply to everyone and not just privileged liberals, I think that a belief in equality necessarily demands a commitment to radical reform which improves the lot of an entire class, regardless of their sexuality.

Then there is the issue of marriage itself and its privileged position within society. If you are arguing for marriage on the basis that it grants you access to certain privileges, the question must surely be asked of whether state-recognition of your relationship should bring such access? It’s often noted that society is changing – conversely, as the clamour for gay marriage grows and grows, the take-up of heterosexual marriage declines. People are living in a myriad of different ways, an abundant variety of family units. Couples live unmarried for their entire lives; couples have open relationships; people have polygamous relationships, living with two or more ‘partners’ and so on. Marriage is a formal construct which has varied hugely from culture to culture, period to period. If we are to argue that all consenting adults should be able to have their relationships recognised by the state, presenting gay marriage as the final frontier seems entirely arbitrary.

Without this context, demands for gay marriage as most commonly depicted are merely demands for the privileged status enjoyed by the already privileged.

It was with a grim inevitability that yesterday, in amongst the various articles on gay marriage which popped up on my RSS feed, there was one about the resumed ‘military trials’ at Guantanamo Bay. Obama had suspended these when he took office, promising to use open, civilian trials and close Guantanamo. On the day he lifted this suspension he codified in law the practice of holding detainees indefinitely without charge. As the trials resumed last week the American government once again sought to suppress any evidence regarding and discussion of torture, abuse and rendition. In recent discussions regarding Guantanamo I have found myself wondering if the detainees would perhaps get more attention if they made it known that they were gay and wanted to get married. That sounds like an unnecessarily glib comment but I think it raises fundamental points about the nature of human rights and when we sit up and take notice. Indeed, the case of Bradley Manning seems to have been one of the few incidences of shadowy US government activity which has been covered by the ‘gay media’ due to Bradley’s sexuality and/or transgender. Yet even this isn’t linked to Obama or at least, if it was, it’s now swept away by the emotional gratitude towards his ‘personal support’ for gay marriage. Gore Vidal’s quote at the beginning may be vitriolic but the fixation on gay marriage yet simultaneous belief that it’s an issue which exists in a vacuum smacks of gut emotional responses overriding all else.

As a postscript, I’ll declare my personal interest – I’m gay and I’m engaged. Personally I don’t really care if I get a civil partnership or a civil marriage – I don’t see much difference. My boyfriend does care and wants to get married. So I understand this at first hand. However I think that, when we get married, society is still going to be unequal – not just in terms of competing client groups but in fundamental structural ways. When gay marriage becomes a reality, as it surely will, the fight for human rights and for equality will have barely begun.

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