Scroll To Top

What We Learned From an Obama Win

What We Learned From an Obama Win


Take the marriage moniker out of the dialogue, and gay rights have made seemingly insurmountable strides in the past four years.

Every national campaign has its moments of revelation, straws in the wind of change. For me, one of the most memorable blew past in a snippet of video.

It was June. Hillary Clinton was conceding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. A few minutes into her speech, as she called the roll of her supporters, she hit on the words "gay and straight." The camera angle was such that you could see young people in the crowd behind her erupt in boisterous cheers. A few minutes later a mention of "gay rights" elicited the same reaction.

Those young people, it struck me, were reacting to Clinton's gay-friendly rhetoric the way we are used to seeing social conservatives react to gay-hostile rhetoric: with joyful recognition that their brand of pro-American values, their brand of patriotism, was being affirmed. The "moral values" energy was on our side.

In 2004, when President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in a tight race, we thought we had learned the continuing, indeed renewed, potency of values issues (read: gay marriage and abortion). An activist state supreme court had legalized gay marriage; Republicans gleefully seized the issue by putting gay marriage bans on state ballots, energizing the party's social conservative base. At a moment when voters were looking for stability and strength, the Republicans wove gay marriage into an overarching security narrative: America's core values were being challenged by radical Islamists from without as well as radical judges from within, and Republicans could be trusted to stand up to both. On the defensive, Democrats scrambled to change the subject, triangulating away from their gay and lesbian supporters.

What a difference four years makes. Again activist judges, this time in two states (California and Connecticut), order same-sex marriage. Again gay marriage bans sprout on state ballots. Again the public craves stability and security, though this time the threat is economic. On paper, the ingredients are the makings of another 2004.

But this time the results were entirely different. In 2008, Democrats used gays as an applause line, embracing us as a symbol of the change agenda. More important, Obama embedded gays in a security narrative of his own: America has been weakened by divisive politics and fruitless bellicosity; inclusiveness can restore the country's tattered unity, rebuilding strength at home and prestige abroad. This time it was the Republicans who mumbled and changed the subject, steering away from social issues both in their choice of nominee and in their campaign.

Which election, 2004 or 2008, tells us more about the future? You could argue that the values vote of 2004 was a fear-driven blip in the larger trend toward gay integration. Or you could argue that 2008 was really about the economy, and that culture-war issues will resurface when pocketbook issues recede.

It is too early to say, but that has never stopped a journalist before, so here goes: To me, 2008 looks more like the new normal. The cultural backlash against gay equality is far from over, and the marriage fight, in particular, has years to go. But the core message of legal equality has gotten through.

Now, "gotten through" does not mean "always wins." It means that the presumption of gay equality is at least as prevalent as the presumption of gay inferiority. According to Gallup polls, a clear majority of Americans now believe that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal and that "homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle." In 2008, for the first time, Gallup found that as many respondents judged homosexual relations "morally acceptable" as judged them "morally wrong." At about 90%, support for "equal rights in terms of job opportunities" is now so overwhelming, as to be a nonissue.

What about marriage discrimination, then? Opposition to same-sex marriage remains predominant. Here, however, the problem is that the public sees gender as part of the core definition of marriage, not as a discriminatory detail. Eventually, albeit slowly, that is likely to change.

Meanwhile, the public already accepts the legitimacy of legal same-sex unions, provided they are not called marriage. Strikingly, a recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic-leaning firm, found that a majority of young white evangelicals, ages 18 to 29, favor either gay marriage (26%) or civil partnerships (32%). That places young evangelicals closer to the overall population than to their older confreres. In the foreseeable future, the principle of same-sex unions, though perhaps not "marriage," will be uncontroversial even on the Christian right.

I think, though I can't prove this, that there are two important transitions happening here. Both are good for gay and lesbian Americans, but one will require some hard rethinking.

The first is that the antigay culture war is winding down. The public has weighed the Karl Rove narrative (culture-war politics strengthens America by defending our values) against the Barack Obama narrative (culture-war politics weakens America by undermining our unity) and has come down on Obama's side -- certainly for now but possibly for much longer.

Harder for us to adjust to will be this: The civil rights mind-set, with its focus on antidiscrimination laws and court-ordered remedies, has outlived its usefulness. There are still discrimination problems, of course--for example, when schools turn a blind eye to harassment. By and large, however, the public no longer regards gays as an oppressed minority, and by and large we aren't one.

The old civil rights model, with its roots in an era when homosexuals were politically friendless pariahs, focuses on such matters as protection from bigoted employers and hate crimes. In truth, for most gay Americans the civic responsibility agenda, with its focus on service to family (marriage), children (mentoring and adoption), and country (the military), is more relevant and important. With a comparatively sympathetic administration and Congress taking office in Washington, the time has come to pivot away from the culturally defensive pariah agenda -- the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, for instance -- and toward the culturally transformative family agenda.

Priority 1, and well ahead of whatever comes second, should be federal recognition of state civil unions. Obama supported this, as did, for that matter, all the other Democratic candidates. Marriage will take a while, but federal civil unions, though not a cinch, are attainable in the course of the next four to eight years, and they would be hugely beneficial to gay couples, who would get access to immigration rights, Social Security benefits, spousal tax status, and much, much more. Federal recognition of same-sex unions might also break the back of the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy. How can one part of the U.S. government banish gay couples while the rest embraces them?

Perhaps I'm a Pollyanna. Perhaps the antigay political volcano is merely dormant, not dying. Perhaps it is too early to move on from civil rights. But I think it likelier that the country has turned a corner in the culture wars. If so, the question will be whether we can turn with it.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Jonathan Rauch