This is the first in what will be a series of online discussions hosted by HarvardCRCL.org. Each discussion will focus on an event held at Harvard Law School discussing issues pertinent to civil rights and civil liberties. Amicus contributors will summarize the discussion that took place at the event, and then anyone who would like to continue the discussion will be encouraged to do so here.
Thurgood Marshall, the great NAACP organizer and litigator, was asked after Brown vs. Board of Education whether, in light of threatened violence and school closures in the South, he would have been “well advised to let things move along gradually for a while.” Marshall responded that he did indeed believe in gradualism, but “I also believe that 90-odd-years [the time elapsed since the Emancipation Proclamation] is pretty gradual.” – Michael Klarman, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/19/opinion/la-oe-klarman-gay-marriage-20100919
Professor Randall Kennedy spoke this week at an event co-sponsored by Harvard BLSA and Lambda. Kennedy began with the question of whether President Obama’s record on gay marriage should more appropriately be referred to as “troubling” or “embarrassing?” He cited Obama’s past support for gay marriage, then his possibly disingenuous conversion to religious opposition, and more recently his description of his position as “evolving.” He believes that Obama’s current opposition to gay marriage is in fact nothing but political prevarication to conform his beliefs to political expediency.
Kennedy also raises alarm at the possibility that Obama’s position could be legitimate religious belief, which may even be more troubling. Religious justification has been used to support such abhorrent practices as slavery and was explicitly part of the analysis in Loving v. Virginia.
If in fact Obama’s reluctance to openly support gay marriage is a recognition of the political realities in presidential swing states, is it justifiable? Is it reasonable that Obama do what is necessary to increase the likelihood of a two-term presidency while he continues a gradual approach to expanding rights for GLBT individuals? Is Obama bowing to political pressure from the African-American or working-class communities critical an electoral college victory? Finally, is there a fair analogy between the movement for gay rights and the African-American civil rights movement?
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Could President Obama be sincere that he doesn’t think marriage should be the top LGBT priority?
Interesting. That could also be a “yes and” situation. Ie he doesn’t believe marriage should be top priority, but he also wanted to (wants) to avoid taking a pro-marriage equality stance for LGBTQ reasons.
oops, for political reasons, not LGBTQ reasons.
Even if he is sincere, is it necessarily his right or his job to determine what the priorities should be? It seems to me that a politician who is supportive of equal rights generally should allow affected communities to establish their own priorities for what type of equality they feel they are being denied. Even if the president doesn’t see marriage equality as the top priority, if he doesn’t support the call to action from the LGBT community, he is not supporting real equality.
Professor Kennedy spoke about how at the time of the Loving case, miscegenation laws were not the primary goal of civil rights activists. Yet, people who thought they had a right to marry whoever they chose took it to court, and won that right. The President and the Justice Department have chosen to go to court to defend laws such as DOMA that he himself has said he opposes. IF those directly affected by this discrimination are choosing to fight against it, it’s obviously a priority for them. Anyone, including the President, who is not affected by it but believes in equality should support the goals of the movement fighting for equality, not tell them they should really be fighting for something less.
Thank you, Professor Kennedy, for your sharp presentation today.
One thing that occurred to me was that the embarrassment might not be so much Obama as the Democratic establishment that lets him get away with his retrograde, incoherent, and seemingly-less-than-honest stance on same-sex marriage. If I recall correctly, Obama’s views during the presidential campaign were no different than those of the other two leading Democratic candidates, and all three of them were treated with kid-gloves on the issue by reporters and party leaders, while the more progressive wing of the party was given sotto voce assurances that all three of them “really” believed in same-sex marriage but just couldn’t come out and say so yet.
So to what extent are Obama’s statements on the subject really just epiphenomenal? Shouldn’t we just expect him to endorse same-sex marriage when it becomes quite safe to do so, and not before?
The embarrassment that the Democratic Party has brought on itself is significant, though: the party establishment is now to the right of one of the Bush twins on this issue!
I think there’s a legitimate question of leadership on this issue. One can recognize the political ramifications that may accompany a progressive position on gay marriage and still believe that Obama should take that position. Particularly if he truly believes that all Americans should have an equal right to marry the person they love, shouldn’t we expect the President to lead by example? The job of a president is not simply to mimic public opinion. The job of a president is to lead, and Obama is not doing that.