Yesterday's post on Obama and gay rights deserves an addendum following Jamelle's insightful critique over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. On the whole, I think Jamelle makes some important points about social equality and politics.
President Bush, if you remember, supported a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, and was generally supportive of state-based efforts to strip gay Americans of their rights. Indeed, stoking fear and hostility towards gay Americans was part of the Bush administration’s reelection effort. I mean, to just sort of underscore the degree to which it was open season on gay Americans, the White House consistently opposed the extension of hate crimes legislation to gays, even as the country saw a sharp rise in the number of hate crimes targeted at gays. Activists are well within their rights to criticize Obama’s speech as “just words,” but in doing so, they miss an important fact about presidential rhetoric: it makes a difference. It further brings gay concerns into the mainstream and gives them a sense of urgency.
This is certainly not to say that the gay community should ignore the fact that Obama has yet to really move on gay rights, but on the whole, I that it’s far more productive to at least acknowledge that Barack Obama is an ally, and – slow-walking notwithstanding – is openly supportive of gay rights. Tearing him down politically – as opposed to lobbying and pressuring – only makes his job that much harder.
Presidential rhetoric, though largely symbolic, definitely makes a difference. America's general disdain for identity politics often makes such rhetoric politically damaging, so going out on a limb for gay rights is certainly commendable. Attacks levied against President Obama, as Jamelle notes, do in fact lack historical perspective, as the last eight years were pretty atrocious as far as civil liberties and social equality are concerned.
That said, I think much of the defense of Obama on this issue also lacks perspective. I doubt many Obama defenders wake up each morning to a partner they can't call "husband" or "wife" because of some laughable "sanctity" of marriage. I doubt many people arguing "Just wait, your time will come" have to suppress their identity among men and women they share the ultimate wartime bond with. I doubt many people ignorantly claiming "Congress will defend gay rights when they have time" live with an identity that's caricatured in pop culture and historically rejected as immoral and perverse. I doubt many people suggesting "He's done a lot for gay rights already" face a culture where accepting your sexual identity is referred to as "coming out"--suggesting that your very existence represents a rejection of social norms. In judging a President's record on social equality, this is the perspective we need to keep in mind. This perspective--the human element behind the politics of social policy--is, in my opinion, a critical measure of our progress as a nation. And it is within this context that many critics are (rightfully) a bit frustrated with the Obama administration.
But Jamelle's also right: There's a fine line between attacking President Obama on this issue and pressuring him to move forward with his promises. Political criticism, when done tactfully, is healthy--but criticism can very quickly become an unhelpful attack. Obama's symbolic gestures are magnanimous, yes, but most of us can agree there's still a long way to go.