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More Perfect Unions

The notion that race was not an issue in the 2008 election was luminously thrilling to gay people. Since many of us believe that our struggle is a natural sequel to the midcentury civil-rights movement, the Barack Obama candidacy allowed us leeway to imagine a time when sexual orientation will likewise not be an issue. We are already grateful for change we can believe in-a shift in the American voting populace. Even if the Obama presidency brings us no more substantial change, he has given evidence that discrimination in both edict and practice can evaporate, and that fact in itself galvanizes those who still face such discrimination.

In the 2004 convention speech that made him a national figure, Obama said, “Yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” In his speech on election night, he said, “I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.” No other president has spoken such words. Ronald Reagan managed to avoid the word AIDS through most of his tenure, when that plague was raging in the gay community; the last sodomy laws criminalizing gay sex were struck down only six years ago; and now, a president-elect speaks of what is to him the self-evident fact that gay people love each other. It was an act of confident decency to include us in that speech. Obama has built his identity and momentum on inclusiveness, and these repeated references to gay people indicate that we are among the included.

The people who oppose our progress are also among the included. Any hope contains a modicum of anxiety, and ours has been stoked by Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to say the invocation at his inauguration. Warren has consistently opposed gay marriage, has likened even committed gay couples to pedophiles and has forbidden gay men and lesbians to be members of his church unless they “repent of their homosexual lifestyle.” He exemplifies the ugly factionalism that we had hoped to put behind us-not just opposed to same-sex marriage, but aggressively campaigning against the truth and vitality of our love and steadfastness. It is important to Obama to reach out to the right wing and engage with evangelical Christians, but other clerics would have served that objective. For many gay people, it was like having an apartheid enforcer bless a leader elected with the black vote strongly behind him. Obama does not advocate gay marriage, but he does support federally recognized civil unions. While many of us believe that separate but equal is not equal, it would be a great deal more equal than it has been until now. Civil unions that have national status would guarantee the hospital visits Obama mentioned in his victory oration. They would also enable gay couples to bequeath their estates to each other as married couples can, without an inheritance tax. They would also be a potent validation. But while the issue most discussed in the culture at large is marriage, gay people seek action on a plethora of issues: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the punishing antigay policy of the U.S. military; the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, which would add LGBT protections to federal hate-crimes legislation; and the passage of ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act), which would prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and, in its more inclusive form, gender identity. Additionally, activists want to see the repeal of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), a necessary precondition to marriage or civil unions, as well as the passage of the Uniting American Families Act, which would grant non- American permanent partners of gay Americans the same immigration and residence status married people enjoy. Obama supports the gay-equality position in all these cases. Most are not the exclusive prerogatives of the executive branch; they will require support from Congress and the courts. Given the president’s enormous legislative sway, gay-rights organizations are newly energized about encouraging Congress to pass these laws, which have faced a certain veto from President Bush. This series of actions would do a great deal to give gay people rights comparable to the heterosexual population. The fact that they are discrete measures is strategically crucial; bundled together into a constitutional amendment, they wouldn’t stand a chance, but gradualism will help them. Social change must be embraced not only by the people whom it affects directly, but also by a larger circle of supporters. That circle is growing.

While public attitudes toward gay people have continued to evolve toward equity, it is impossible to look away from the success of antigay ballot initiatives in the November election-Prop 8 against gay marriage in California, anti-gay-marriage measures in Florida and Arizona, and a new law in Arkansas that makes it impossible for gay couples to adopt or provide foster care to children. The most significant augury in the dissected demographics of those defeats is that older people tend to oppose gay marriage and support antigay measures, and younger people tend not to. That points to change, but it does not point to instant change. Gay activists are in an optimistic mood this season, and most believe that full civil rights will come, but when they will come is anyone’s guess. Expect fits and starts, with predictable backlashes against every accrual. Opponents of gay marriage use an absolutist moral language that cloaks prejudice in righteousness. The steep task facing the advocacy workers is to help everyone realize that we will have a better, happier country when we all have the same fair chance. It’s a steep task, but in Obama’s America, it may be a little less steep, because it accords with his own beliefs.

People who are abused usually grow up to abuse others, and in the arena of civil rights, we see this sad tendency borne out over and over again. The Mormons, so long persecuted for their marriage practices, fought energetically and effectively for Prop 8. Members of the larger African-American community, themselves freed only recently from miscegenation laws that constricted their marriage rights, voted overwhelmingly for Prop 8. And yet a small number of the abused grow up to be especially compassionate, because they wish to spare others from the pain they know; some are heroic in their fight against injustice. Obama shows every sign of being such a man. He has not, how-ever, put gay rights at the top of his agenda. At a time when the country faces economic nightmares and two hideous wars, thorny issues of social policy may well be shelved for some time. The selection of Rick Warren shows that while Obama is on our side, his biggest goal is to unite a divided nation. Our issues are divisive. He will handle them cautiously. Obama will take no radical and unpopular positions on gay rights, and he will not do abruptly and disruptively what can be achieved peaceably over the long haul. He is well aware of Clinton’s flubbing of the issue of gays in the military in his first weeks in office, and will wish to avoid repeating that fiasco.

There has been a lot of joking that gay is the new black. It’s actually more like the old black: more Rosa Parks than Barack Obama. It is a mark of how far we have to go that the crumbs we are given-a sentence in a speech in Chicago-look so momentous to us. While we celebrate the election of a post-racial candidate, our own post-gay goals are almost embarrassingly modest. We are focused on legalizing our relationships to the people we love, not on electing a gay president. It was AIDS that spurred gay people and then our friends and families to activism, and the past two decades’ progress in gay rights owes everything to that activism. The fact that gay marriage is being seriously debated seems like a mark of extraordinary progress to us. Gay people today are almost incredulous that our antecedents had to live in a web of secrets and lies, sometimes going to jail for having sex with the person they loved. Every one of us hopes that our children will be equally hard-pressed to imagine what it was like for us to have our partners deported, to be kept from seeing them in hospitals, to lose jobs because of our sexual orientation, to give up half our partners’ estates to the IRS because our relationships had no legal status. And perhaps our grandchildren will wonder what it was like to live in a world in which a viable gay candidate for the presidency was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.