Barry, Obama & The Winding Road To Gay Marriage
When the history of this country's journey toward acceptance of same-sex marriage is written, much will be made of the startling swiftness with which one state after another embraced gay marriage in a matter of a few months in 2008 and 2009. A huge shift in popular attitudes toward homosexuality has happened in what history will eventually see as a blink of an eye.
But those same historians will find a dissonant note in this social revolution: What will they make of prominent leaders who rose to power as early advocates for gay rights, but then tempered their views or reversed course just as much of the country was heading the other way? What's behind these strange turns in the public attitudes of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and President Barack Obama?
Barry was first elected mayor in 1978 in good part because he won the support of Washington's growing and vocal gay community.
As then-city hall reporter Juan Williams wrote in The Post, "Gay Washington's political clout was certified in 1978 when gays contributed money and volunteer campaign staff to help Marion Barry win a narrow victory in the Democratic primary for mayor." In that first mayoral campaign, Barry was the only candidate openly supportive of gay rights.
In 1981, over the vocal objections of an influential group of black ministers, Barry signed a bill repealing criminal penalties for sodomy between consenting adults. The next year, the mayor was the keynote speaker at the annual Lambda Legal Defense and Educational Fund dinner, where he was honored for his work on gay civil rights, a cause Barry called "morally right."
Barry stood up to the ministers who were considered essential to electoral success in the District. As The Post's Milton Coleman reported in 1979, even when 40 ministers crowded into Barry's office to complain that the mayor's presence at gay-sponsored events was encouraging homosexuality, Barry insisted that gay rights was a human rights battle "similar to the civil rights that blacks fought for in the 1950s and 1960s."
But last week, Barry stood in Freedom Plaza leading anti-same-sex marriage protesters in a chant of "Say no to same-sex marriage in D.C.!" He continued: "You can't just talk about it, brothers. You got to work for it. You got to go across the street and walk the halls of the city Council. Confront all 12 of them, eye to eye--eye to eye! Morality against immorality.''
In 1996, Barack Obama responded to a Chicago newspaper's questions about the issue with these words: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."
Yet in his presidential campaign and on to today, the president has said that his religious faith leads him to oppose same-sex marriage (he favors legalizing civil unions for homosexual couples.)
Obama has characteristically reached out to the center, writing in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope" that "It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided...and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history."
Here are two otherwise dependably liberal politicians retreating from positions that seemed bold and even fringy when they took their initial stands years ago. Do Barry and Obama really have deep religious qualms about same-sex marriage, or are they merely seeking a middle path on an issue that cleaves the nation? How much of a factor in their decisions is race--especially after some gay rights advocates have blamed black and Hispanic voters for last fall's vote in California to create a constitutional bar against marriage for same-sex couples? (There's some evidence, from stats maven Nate Silver, that that interpretation of the vote is inaccurate; the divide appears to be more generational than ethnic or racial.)
In both Barry and Obama's cases, the primary motive for their positions appears to be political. Barry hasn't exactly become a softie in his latter years, and his claim to be "a moral politician" was catnip to the late-night TV comics.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||M - Th 11p / 10c|
|Gaywatch - Marion Barry|
But Barry has positioned himself of late as the voice of pre-gentrification D.C.--the older black residents who feel as if their city has been taken over by newcomers, and especially by affluent young whites. Add the face-off between Barry and Mayor Adrian Fenty--whose deepest support comes from exactly those newcomers--and you have a fairly compelling political rationale for Barry's flip on gay rights.
The president's position is also rooted in electoral concerns--including the simple desire to be true to a campaign stance that helped Obama demonstrate that he was not the kneejerk liberal of his opponents' caricature. Just as Obama's selection of evangelical minister Rick Warren to deliver the prayer at his inauguration raised the hackles of many liberal and gay supporters, the president's stand on same-sex marriage sends a message of moderation to religious voters, even as he assures gays that he supports them on other aspects of their movement (civil unions, repealing the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.)
Despite the rhetoric of campaigns, change rarely begins in Washington; rather, it bubbles up from below. Politicians such as Obama and Barry won't hesitate to go where the people are when the time is right, but on difficult and divisive issues, they're much happier to hold back until the people have spoken. Call it timidity, call it craven, but it's how things work.
By Marc Fisher |
May 11, 2009; 8:25 AM ET
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