WASHINGTON – There are two ways to defend gay marriage. Argument A is empathy:
One is influenced by gay friends in committed relationships yearning for the
fulfillment and acceptance that marriage conveys upon heterosexuals. That’s
essentially the case President Obama made when he first announced his change of
No talk about rights, just human fellow feeling. Such an argument
is attractive because it can be compelling without being compulsory. Many
people, feeling the weight of this longing among their gay friends, are willing
to redefine marriage for the sake of simple human sympathy.
At the same
time, however, one can sympathize with others who feel great trepidation at the
radical transformation of the most fundamental of social institutions, one that,
until yesterday, was heterosexual in all societies in all places at all
The empathy argument both encourages mutual respect in the debate
and lends itself to a political program of gradualism.
State by state,
let community norms and moral sensibilities prevail. Indeed, that is Obama’s
Such pluralism allows for the kind of “stable settlement
of the issue” that Ruth Bader Ginsburg once lamented had been “halted” by Roe v.
Wade regarding abortion, an issue as morally charged and politically
unbridgeable as gay marriage.
Argument B is more uncompromising: You have
the right to marry anyone, regardless of gender. The right to “marriage
equality” is today’s civil rights, voting rights and women’s rights – and just
Argument B has extremely powerful implications. First, if
same-sex marriage is a right, then there is no possible justification for
letting states decide for themselves.
How can you countenance even one
state outlawing a fundamental right? Indeed, half a century ago, states’ rights
was the cry of those committed to continued segregation and
Second, if marriage equality is a civil right, then
denying it on the basis of (innately felt) sexual orientation is, like
discrimination on the basis of skin color, simple bigotry. California’s
Proposition 8 was overturned by a 9th Circuit panel on the grounds that the
referendum, reaffirming marriage as between a man and woman, was nothing but an
expression of bias – “serves no purpose... other than to lessen the status and
human dignity of gays and lesbians.”
Pretty strong stuff. Which is why it
was so surprising that Obama, after first advancing Argument A, went on five
days later to adopt Argument B, calling gay marriage a great example of
“expand(ing) rights” and today’s successor to civil rights, voting rights,
women’s rights and workers’ rights.
Problem is: It’s a howling
contradiction to leave up to the states an issue Obama now says is a right. And
beyond being intellectually untenable, Obama’s embrace of the more hard-line
“rights” argument compels him logically to see believers in traditional marriage
as purveyors of bigotry. Not a good place for a president to be in an evenly
divided national debate that requires both sides to offer each other a modicum
No wonder that Obama has been trying to get away from the
issue as quickly as possible.
It’s not just the New York Times poll
showing his new position to be a net loser.
It’s that he is too
intelligent not to realize he’s embraced a logical
Moreover, there is the problem of the obvious cynicism of
his conversion. Twothirds of Americans see his “evolution” as a matter not of
principle but of politics. In fact, the change is not at all an evolution – a
teleological term cleverly chosen to suggest movement toward a higher state of
being – given that Obama came out for gay marriage 16 years ago. And then
He was pro when running for the Illinois Legislature from
ultra-liberal Hyde Park. He became anti when running eight years later for US
senator and had to appeal to a decidedly more conservative statewide
And now he’s pro again.
When a Republican engages in
such finger- to-the-wind political calculation (on abortion, for example), he’s
condemned as a flip-flopper. When a liberal goes through a similar gyration,
he’s said to have “evolved” into some more highly realized creature, deserving
of a halo on the cover of a national newsmagazine.
comically fawning press, Obama knows he has boxed himself in. His “rights”
argument compels him to nationalize same-sex marriage and sharpen hostility to
proponents of traditional marriage – a place he is loath to go.
was rushed into it by his loquacious vice president. But surely he could have
thought this through.
The writer’s email address is
firstname.lastname@example.org. (c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group.