As I've written countless times before, I think gay marriage is the wrong cause and should be dumped immediately. So I didn't think I'd care much about the recent Department of Justice move to dismiss the Smelt case against DOMA. But, to my surprise, I found myself enthralled by the legal arguments that have sprung up around it. I'll be writing on these at greater length, but for now I wanted to share some preliminary musings and observations about the initial gay and lesbian responses to the administration's case.
First, I was struck by the amount of petulance and, frankly, sheer hysteria that marked the outburst against Obama who has, it seems, gone from being the Great Hope to the Great Betrayer. Although I haven't done a scientific count, I'm willing to bet that "betrayal" has been the most used word in the gay blogosphere over the last few days. For the most part, I concur with Alex Blaze's analysis of the issue and especially when he writes that "The Smelt case was a bad idea from the beginning that the gay activist community opposed, but the plaintiffs and their lawyer went ahead with it anyway." I don't even support gay marriage, but I'm bemused by the extent to which people are defending a suit that they may not even agree with in the first place. It's a little bit like the old joke: the food here is terrible, and there's so little of it. In this case: The lawsuit here is terrible, yes, and how dare he dare he seek its dismissal!
In that light, for gay marriage activists to now insist that Obama ought not to have sought to dismiss the case is a bit like poking someone with a very sharp spear and then crying foul when they do what they can to retaliate. Let me just say this as a layperson: if you file a lawsuit, the other party is going to file to dismiss. That's kind of how it works.
Second, I'm intrigued at the level of personal bile and anger leveled at Obama and the paradoxically high level of expectation that people seem to have for him. The sense of betrayal around the Smelt case exposes the extent to which people seem to have over-invested in Obama's supposed munificence and good will towards the gay community. Yes, he's clearly brilliant. Yes, he may well be to the left of Bush, which is not saying very much. But come on people, he's not your daddy.
In other words, stop thinking of him as the father who turned his back on you when you jumped into his arms.
He's also no longer your candidate. He's the President, not Miss America. He hasn't even been President for six months, and we're already shocked that the man hasn't brought about world peace, ended hunger, and fed and clothed the homeless. As far as so-called "gay rights" are concerned, it may come as a shock to many in the community, but Obama was not elected solely to reverse DOMA or end DADT. If you believe in the spirit of the conventional electoral politics of Democrats versus Republicans (the problems with which I won't go into here, lacking time and space) he was elected, in large part, to clean up the mess left behind not just by Bush but also by Clinton. Who, we might remember, is responsible for NAFTA, the evisceration of welfare, DOMA, and DADT. Just in case we've forgotten.
And yet, despite all the evidence that Obama has always been a politician, gays in particular seem to feel the sting of his "betrayal." Some hold out hope that a supposedly better Obama exists, and that he will emerge to right our perceived wrongs at the end of the day. This is nowhere more apparent than in Tony Kushner's recent CNN interview where the liberal playwright said: "Yeah, I think that it would be a lot to expect the president of the United States to openly declare that he's in favor of same sex marriage, because it would give people on the right a handy club to wield and use gay marriage as a wedge issue... I'm perfectly willing to accept that this may be a necessary compromise. I wish people didn't have to say, 'I believe that marriage is between a man and woman,' especially when they obviously don't believe that. But if that's what it takes to get elected..."
So Obama, by this rationale, is a Manchurian candidate, just the good kind. What, or who, will be the Queen of Diamonds that triggers his wish to follow our orders? Or perhaps, one day, over the rainbow, if we follow this logic, the clouds will lift and he will spring into the Oval Office and sign gay marriage into reality.
But if you know anything about Chicago politics, or have read either the New Yorker dissection of Obama's political history, or any of Adolph Reed's brilliant and scathing analyses of Obama, then you know perfectly well that Obama will do whatever it takes to win. In other words, whether or not Obama has his heart in the right place about gay marriage (which would be, in my view, the wrong place), and whether or not he secretly wants to legalize gay marriage everywhere is immaterial. The issue of gay marriage isn't about someone "doing the right thing," but now a matter that's up to the same electoral politics that spawned the culture of hope around Obama.
So what explains this emotional overinvestment in him? I think the reasons have to do with the nature of the so-called gay activism around gay marriage. The creation of groups like Join the Impact has drawn out multitudes of gays who now see themselves as activists. But many of today's purported gay activists have little to no relationship to activism outside the narrow agenda of marriage rights. This is not to say that a great many of them don't have connections to an older gay movement, such as, perhaps, that around the AIDS crisis. But, for the most part, today's gay marriage activists are spawned by the non-profit industrial complex where your goals are, generally, with very few exceptions, defined in very narrow and single-agenda terms.
Or they're people for whom politics consists of hitting the "send" or "share" button on a Facebook group and who judge the effectiveness of a movement based entirely on the numbers of people it can turn out to events. That's not to dismiss the power of social networking groups, but to say that movement-building and sustained activism has to do with long-term and often painful forms of coalition-building, the kind that's entirely absent from the gay marriage movement.
When I first began work as a queer activist, it was alongside housing groups fighting gentrification in my neighborhood of Uptown. As queer activists, we weren't there to tell the housing folks what to do, but to respectfully and slowly insert our presence in the struggle. That often meant shutting up and staying silent while the primary group's agenda was worked out. It also meant lots of anger and pain and a whole lot of processing both internally and with other groups. But, in the end, it meant a richer movement against gentrification where queers weren't just fighting gentrification because we were losing our rights to housing but because all of us, queers and non-queers alike, saw the stakes in the struggle. And we were, in fact, often struggling against gays and lesbians who were pro-gentrification.
Today, I see a lot of anger and intensity within the gay marriage movement but little sense of other struggles, except, as in immigration and UAFA, when that movement can be cynically deployed to boost the gay marriage cause. I have no doubt that this will, of course, incite furious responses from all manner of activists who'll display their credentials in coalition-building, but my statement stands: gay marriage is not a movement that's growing in conjunction with other movements, except in the most cynical fashion.
Bereft of any sense of what it takes to build a movement, the gay marriage movement's activists rely on nothing more than their extremely personalized sense of politics. Their politics have nothing to do with placing gay marriage in a larger context of social justice - if they did, they would have to face the fact that gay marriage has nothing to do with social justice. They would have to acknowledge the fact that a movement that insists that gays should be able to get married in order to gain benefits like health care is also a movement that says that anyone who's not married can just roll over and die. They would have to acknowledge that the issue of a hospital denying you access to your partner's bedside isn't going to be resolved by marriage if you're faced with a homophobic doctor, and that such a right should be naturalized as one for everyone who's not in a conventionally recognizable relationship of love and commitment. Like friendship, for instance.
Instead, their politics are defined entirely by their perception of what matters to them personally: "If I can't get married, it's just wrong to not have gay marriage." This doesn't preclude the fact that many people who want gay marriage do think of marriage in more inclusive terms, don't think of it in exclusion to other issues, and might well struggle with the one-note message sent to them by the "movement." But their voices are effectively silenced by the larger groups around them.
Which is why, in the end, gays are going to keep getting angry with Obama. The vast majority of today's marriage advocates have no clue about how to fight an activist battle for the long term. When their narrowly defined agenda is threatened, they act like petulant children and threaten to "never vote for him again," or insist that perhaps Hillary, whose husband initiated the mess we're in, was a better candidate after all. In short, these are people who apparently see activism as a short zero-sum game defined entirely by the perpetual and draining cycle of conventional electoral politics.
While I have no interest in helping the gay marriage movement, allow me to caution all of you about getting too invested in every perceived slight and in over-investing in your candidates. Because you will, eventually, be burnt out while your fat cat organizations like, oh, HRC, continue to spin their wheels and send open letters to Obama about their wounded feelings.
Obama is the President you voted for. He has miles to go, and a legislative agenda that spans more than the "rights" of any one community. And most activist struggles are long and bloody battles that span decades. If you don't believe me, ask anyone in the immigration rights movement about what what it means to battle for years for even the slightest change to legislation (and no, I don't mean anyone fighting for UAFA, whose supporters want nothing to do with immigration reform). Or ask housing activists about what it means to fight a long and slow and sometimes losing battle against gentrification in your neighborhood.
In the meantime, my angry brethren, I say this to you in my best Bette Davis voice: Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.