In the quick rush of responses to Obama’s declaration that he does, in fact, support same-sex marriage, my favorite so far has been E.J. Graff’s. She makes two very important points that liberals who want to pick this apart and find reasons to be unhappy with Obama need to consider. First, the notion that Obama isn’t supporting his personal beliefs with policy is simply wrong. While he did the political thing and afffirmed the ridiculous claim that this is a state issue, his administration has, in fact, not acted in a way that suggests he really believes that. They support the end of DOMA, they don’t enforce it, and they support a law that would end it. They believe, correctly, that it’s unconstitutional. Outside of that, this isn’t his fight. States either have to decide to legalize it or the courts will have to make them, but that’s about it. Second of all, she powerfully puts down the liberal tendency to take statements like this as “just words” that don’t mean anything:
There’s something very deep about having your government declare you a stranger to its laws, defining your love as outside all respectable recognition. For my president to stand up and say that I should belong fully to my nation, that my wife and I should be considered as fully married as my brother and his wife—well, it reopens and washes out some very deeply incised sense of exclusion, a scar inflicted when, at age 15, I first panicked at the realization that I might be queer.
Words matter. Every action that changes the world started with someone saying or writing words, often lots and lots of words. The President is a moral leader as well as a legal one, and his opinion matters. Not everything in this world is a concrete object to hold on to or a material gain. Symbols matter. Words matter. Obama taking this stance sends the signal that no number of polls could, which is that supporting gay marriage is the mainstream position now. That will help get things moving in a policy way. Not directly, but by helping change the conversation, and making it harder for bigots to plea the moral high ground. In fact, as soon as this was announced, Shep Smith on Fox News straight up said that liberals have the moral high ground on this. Belief precedes policy. Don’t ever forget that, even if doing so makes you feel like a rebel and iconoclast.
Gay marriage is always a strange issue for me, because I generally am not into marriage. I have no plans on it, ever, because I think it’s a patriarchal institution that can’t be rooted enough from its origins in the idea that one person can own another to be salvaged. Obviously, the continued success of egalitarian models of marriage challenges my belief to an extent, but the fact that divorce continues to be harder than it should be and the way that married couples are privileged over everyone else makes me circle back around to the idea that in order for marriage to truly be a good institution, it would have to change so much that it wouldn’t look like marriage anymore.
But I also believe in love, and I believe a lot of people get married because they want to express that love, and I don’t have a problem with that. I even like weddings! I was just in one! (Which meant getting asked a lot when I’m getting married, but you know, I’ve gotten better at saying, “I don’t believe in marriage” in a cheery voice that makes it hard to argue.) More importantly, shutting a group of people out of a right such as marriage for no other reason than bigotry goes against every value I hold. It really is telling people that they’re less-than for no real reason other than they’re different from you. Like E.J. said, this sort of thing is fundamentally about hurting people by excluding them, and changing that matters. If I were gay, I don’t think I’d want to be married any more than I do now. But I sure as shit wouldn’t want to be told that I didn’t deserve the right. It’s also important to think about what kind of message support for gay marriage sends to gay youth; it lets them know that even if their immediate family or social circles don’t accept them, the President does. And so do a lot of people. In fact, supporting them is mainstream. That’s going to get a lot of sad kids through tough times. And that’s reason enough to celebrate this.