In 1961, when Barack Hussein Obama II was born in the brand new State of Hawaii, laws on the books in 22 of the other 49 United States forbade the marriage of his White American mother to his Black Kenyan father. Arizona’s anti-miscegenation law prohibiting marriage between whites and any persons of color was repealed in 1962.
Similar laws in Utah and Nebraska were overturned the following year. Indiana’s law prohibiting interracial marriage held out until 1965, Maryland’s until 1967, the same year that such laws were finally overturned in Alabama∗, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia that ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.
By the time race was removed as a barrier to marital choice in America, Barack Obama was in the first grade. By the time inter-racial marriage was fully accepted in America . . . well that hasn’t really happened yet. While it’s more and more common for men and women of different heritage to tie the knot, there remain – and you know this as well as I do – a mostly closeted but occasionally verbose cadre of bigots in this country who, had they their way, would continue to see our country divide itself along lines not yet fully erased by centuries of blood and toil.
Yes, we all know about America’s racially conflicted past, so what’s the point?
The point is that it’s incomprehensible to me that Barack Obama, a man whose legitimacy as an American has been publicly questioned by hate-rousing provocateurs, a man whose early life confounds the prevailing norms of his generation, a man whose ascendency in the 21st Century was made possible only by the bravery of justice-seekers in the 20th, that he, of all people, would be behind the times on marriage equality. How is it possible that his stance on gay marriage is still evolving?
In 1969, Barack Obama was just finishing the second grade when, on June 28, almost precisely 42 years ago, thousands of gay men and more than a few women rose up for the first time against the systematic, institutional, sanctioned mistreatment and exclusion under which they suffered in this country. At the time of the Stonewall Uprising, homosexual behavior was a crime in 49 states. The last of the states’ sodomy laws weren’t officially laid to rest until the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, 36 years after Loving, and what interracial couples got in 1967, same-sex couples are still waiting for today.
I struggled with whether to even write on this topic since I don’t really have a dog in the fight. I’m a man married to a woman. Maybe this particular issue is one I should leave alone. Maybe it’s just something I should let time work out in its inexorable way. Maybe, but then when it comes to fairness, time is too sluggish a vessel. Rather than wonder, “Who am I to speak?” I wonder, “Who am I to withhold an opinion where one is clearly called for?” About something as fundamental as the question of whether all American adults have the right to flourish in the loving marriage of their choice, not taking a position is taking a position – the wrong one.
Being fair to the president, no president ever has done more or could have done more to advance the rights of gays and lesbians in this country. The repeal of the military’s policy of feigned ignorance and self-abnegation was, in itself, a triumph. The withdrawal of his administration’s support for the Defense of Marriage Act was another blow for progress. Maybe on this one issue, an issue that perhaps has the president torn over the significance of a mere word, perhaps as a straight man with no ax to grind, he just doesn’t think it’s his place to weigh in. That would be understandable. It would also be unforgivable.
It was a White president from Missouri who integrated the Armed Forces. It was a White president from Texas who signed the Civil Rights Act. Maybe it just has to be a straight president from Hawaii via Illinois who removes that lingering, ugly, codified divide that stands Americans apart from one another, mounting the hate and rot that still enlace our public discourse. Words matter. The words “marriage” and “union” are separate and therefore unequal and even if no one else can see why, surely Barack Obama can.
Taking the president at his word, or at the word of his staff, perhaps he honestly believes that deciding who can marry whom is a matter best left to state electorates. The public will, after all, is the fuel that runs the engine of our democracy and there’s no purer fuel than the public’s expression of that will through voting its opinion. I would accept that, but for the fact that any government’s most vital function is to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.
Were it left to public opinion, our country would be a very different place. When the National Guard met George Wallace at the University of Alabama in 1963, most public opinion in Alabama was on Wallace’s side. When 110,000 Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps in 1942, public opinion largely supported it as good common sense. A fair share of American public opinion once opposed women’s suffrage and supported removal of American Indians from their land.
Some things are too important to be pushed at from behind; they must be led, kicking and screaming if necessary, from the front. The president’s failure to identify marriage equality as a civil right, not something for the states to muddle stopping one step short of an unqualified embrace of all Americans’ rights to enter into the sanctioned marriage of their choice – that, in a word, is cruel. It’s small, it’s weak and it’s cruel.
Four years ago I was fortunate enough to ask then candidate Obama a question and even more fortunate to get a response. It was at the California Democratic Convention and Obama was not yet encircled by Secret Service agents at all times. In a recess of the San Diego Convention Center I saw him on the move and thought, what should I ask this man whose passion is so evident, whose love of life and country so vividly expressed? So I asked, “Senator Obama, what do you hate?”
In an instant of pure candor he replied, “I hate cruelty. I don’t know why people are cruel.”
Neither do I, Mister President. Neither do I.
∗ Actually, as of 1999, Alabama’s anti-miscegenation law remained on the books, though it has not been enforced since Loving. I’m not aware of any other such laws remaining nominally in place, nor do I know if the Alabama law has since been officially repealed by legislation. I’m actually kind of afraid to find out.
Tony Phillips is a grant writer, specializing in service programs for the homeless and special needs populations. A former professor of English and contemporary Western Culture at universities in China and Mexico, he currently lives and works in San Diego.