Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why Do LGBT Activists Want Obama to Say He Supports Same-Sex Marriage

Robin McGehee's essay in Huffington Post criticizes President Obama for declining to support same-sex marriage. A New York Times article also reports that several LGBT advocates are angry that the president refuses to support same-sex marriage.

Why should Obama, however, support this particular issue? McGehee says that Obama should support same-sex marriage for two reasons: 1. in order to lead and 2. to fulfill a campaign promise:
Presidents lead. They take principled stands, based on their values and convictions, and then they work to create a better world. And this president promised his LGBT supporters on the campaign trail that he would be their "fierce advocate." We took him at his word.

Sadly, he isn't living up to his promises....
This argument is not entirely true. Obama certainly promised to be a "fierce advocate" for LGBT rights. And when he fell short of that promise in the past, he received a great deal of criticism (including from this blog).

Yet, Obama never promised to support same-sex marriage. Instead, he has always stated his opposition to it. During the Democratic primaries, each of the leading Democratic contenders -- including Hillary Clinton and Obama -- opposed same-sex marriage. Accordingly, the fact that Obama refuses to do so now should not surprise people who actually listened during his campaign.

Also, it is unclear what LGBT rights movements would gain if Obama suddenly shifted course and supported same-sex marriage. A sudden change in position might look contrived. Also, it would not translate into any immediate policy gains. Marital law is still subject to state control. Federal law could overturn state law on this issue, but this would require a ruling by the Supreme Court. Many LGBT legal advocates, however, do not want the Supreme Court involved with such a decision because it could backfire. No one is exactly sure how Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, will swing.

McGehee also notes that several conservatives, including Dick Cheney and Laura Bush, have recently expressed support for same-sex marriage. There is one major distinction between Obama, Bush and Cheney: Only Obama is seeking national office. Many former politicians have embraced same-sex marriage, now that they no longer depend upon voters for their professional lives. Thus, the comparison falls quite short. Yes -- this position acknowledges that Obama makes political calculations, but all politicians do this. Rather than seeing Obama as some fierce messianic figure descending from above to unshackle the downtrodden of the Earth, savvy voters must view him as a politician seeking votes and reelection. Clearly, Obama has decided that opposing same-sex marriage will not cost him too many votes.

Finally, LGBT groups could probably get more mileage if they pressed Obama on issues on which he has direct influence. Marriage is regulated by state law. Federal law takes marriage into account in many entitlement and other programs, but Obama has stopped defending DOMA. Federal constitutional law can trump any contrary state law, but the Supreme Court has not held that denying same-sex marriage violates the Constitution. Although the President could make such a declaration, he could not enjoin the operation of contrary state law. Furthermore, his opinion would not necessarily cause any particular judge to rule that same-sex marriage prohibitions violate the Constitution. In other words, the gains from pushing Obama on this issue seem speculative at best.

LGBT groups, however, have engaged in highly effective advocacy by pushing Obama on issues over which he has control. Marital policy is not one of those concerns. ENDA, a proposed statute that would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, however, could use presidential support. Rather than pushing Obama to move on an issue in a way that no other serious Democratic contender has done, perhaps LGBT groups would gain a lot more if they pushed Obama and Congress on ENDA.

If Congress passed ENDA, LGBT individuals in all states would receive formal protection against employment discrimination. LGBT folks who are more economically vulnerable would likely benefit more from the passage of ENDA than wealthier gays and lesbians, whose wealth provides some cushion against discrimination -- and allows them to relocate to gay friendly jurisdictions.

The marriage debate raises the issue of class stratification within LGBT communities. Symbolism does very little for people struggling financially. In many ways, however, the arguments for same-sex marriage have a lot to do with symbolic, rather than material, change. ENDA on the other hand would provide at least formal protection to LGBT people with respect to their livelihoods. It is unclear why marital rights should have so much more prominence than basic protections for LGBT workers.


A version of this essay also appears on the Huffington Post.

The Wall Street Journal reports that at least two major New York companies have said they will now withhold benefits from same-sex domestic partners; now these couples must marry in order to obtain benefits.


Melinda said...

You're right that as far as the president is concerned, we in the LGBT community will get further with pressuring him on ENDA, but you've gone off the deep end in claiming that marriage rights are about symbolism rather than real material benefits.

Same-sex couples sometimes pay more in income taxes (depending on income levels and family size), can't qualify for Social Security survivor benefits, pay inheritance taxes as if they were unrelated, frequently pay more for health insurance if not covered by domestic partner benefits, have to pay significant amounts to create legal arrangements mirroring things that are granted by right in marriages, etc. etc. etc. Marriage offers real financial benefits to couples and families of all class backgrounds, both gay and straight.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Melinda: Thanks for commenting. I am not off the deep end. I said a lot -- not all -- of the marriage debate is about symbolism- particularly, this small slice that centers around getting presidential support.

Melinda said...

Sorry, the way it's written, your comparing marriage to ENDA and stating, "ENDA on the other hand would provide at least formal protection to LGBT people with respect to their livelihoods." makes it seem as if you're comparing the symbolic (marriage) with the material (job protections) and that marriage won't affect our livelihoods, which it most definitely will. If I read that wrong, I apologize.

IMHO, marriage has become so prominent because of the fierce right wing opposition and the significant symbolic change gay marriage represents, leading to greater press visibility and thus greater interest in the topic. (It's easier to get people to protest for or against something that's regularly in the news.) I, personally, think we do need to start screaming a lot more about ENDA. Unfortunately, unless the "other side" is going to put together an anti-ENDA campaign, we're probably going to get about as much press as the issue does now, meaning very, very little.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

If people are really into "marriage" for economic reasons, then they should really be into ENDA -- which is basically just an economic issue. The disparity does not result simply from countermovements. A lot of pro-marriage types love the symbolism that comes with marriage. Even if they are entitled to the same benefits (from, e.g., civil unions), they want marriage because of what it means. It is a powerful symbol, but ENDA is more of a material gain. I stand by that.

Not only is ENDA a material gain, it applies to ALL LGBT persons -- even those who don't want to marry or who live in states that already recognize marriage. Why not pursue an issue that would impact LGBT persons everywhere?

Virgil said...

Wow, you are spot on my friend! I argue with my liberal friends till I'm red in the face that Obama never campaigned on supporting gay marriage. Love your blog.:)

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hello, Virgil. I have been slow with some of my responses, but thanks for reading!

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