Don Sherfick

On Obama and marriage equality: a question continues

Filed By Don Sherfick | August 14, 2007 12:14 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Andrew Sullivan, Barack Obama, black civil rights, civil rights, gay marriage, interracial marriage, New Jersey

In the wake of the discussions pro and con over last week’s Logo/HRC event (I can’t call it a “debate” by any stretch) with six of the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls on LGBT issues, I’m in the process of putting together a short series of articles concerning the overall subject or marriage versus civil unions. Hopefully my attention span will let me complete and begin to post them early next week.

In the meantime, I call your attention to this Andrew Sullivan post today. It deals with Barak Obama’s recent statements on same-sex marriage (he says he opposes it but is all for civil unions, a rather generic phrase I intend to explore in my offerings next week). It talks about his observation that back in the 1950’s, the black civil rights movement had some internal controversy over whether and how much to push against bans on interracial marriage versus other elements of the struggle such as school desegregation, voting rights, and the like. He’s been criticized in some quarters of our community for saying, in effect, that at that point in time he would have likely given the nod to the latter issues, even had it meant keeping his own parents’ marriage against the law in many states.

The same argument abounds today concerning the degree we judge candidates on whether and how hard they push toward full marriage rights versus what some see as the“cop-out” of being for civil unions with full legal equivalency. The Sullivan item should be read in its entirety to get the full flavor, so I won’t go into it further here. But the issue is relevant on a number of fronts, both nationally in locally (as in state constitutional amendments), and regardless of how we come down, the conversation ought to continue, even if it could somehow be put back in a bottle.

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Without getting too much into Sullivan, it is interesting for someone to make the argument that marriage rights are more important than voting rights. Sullivan says that her views were too "controversial" to be published in Dissent at first, but maybe it's not controversy but just that it's an opinion that doesn't make all that much sense - if one can't vote, then how is a movement going to put the pressure on the government to get the right to marry? Maybe with the Supreme Court back then, but our ultra-right wing Court now isn't likely to up and decide that same-sex marriage is all good.

But Digby, whose opinions I respect deeply, agrees with Sullivan here:

In my mind, there are few things as fundamental to one's freedom and happiness as being able to create one's own family. It's primal. I think the miscegenation laws were among the ugliest and most unamerican laws this country ever had, and if I had been a black person in 1961 who was in love with a white person, or vice versa, I think those laws would have trumped my concerns about being able to vote. You've only got one life and who you marry and have children with is much less abstract than voting. It hits at the very core of what it is to be human.

The full blog post is worth checking out.

But back to Obama. His main point, that voting rights, etc., are more important than marriage kind of misses the point that queers confirmed bachelors and Sapphists aren't really denied the right to vote as a result of their sexual identities. And it's not like a movement can't focus on several fronts at the same time (this isn't a departure from everything I've been saying about HRC and other orgs, I think they can focus on multiple issues, they just choose not to focus on some really important ones).

I also found it really patronizing that a straight person is sitting right there telling the gays what to do with their movement in anything other than a tactical capacity. Who's he to tell us what our priorities are, no matter how silly they can seem at times to the outside world?

Oh, well, this comment has gone on long enough. I just thought that Digby post might be worth reading with regards to this whole Obama comment.

Don Sherfick | August 14, 2007 4:55 PM

I hadn't considered the issue in terms of the attainment of one right (voting) being key to the ability to achieve another (the right to interracial marriage), but when I thought about it more in light of Alex's comment, it occurs tome that something else likely entered into the setting of black civil rights priorities in the 1950's: The fact that while the color of one's (minority) skin was a huge factor in his/her ability to vote, or get a job, or a quality education, it wasn't an impediment to getting somebody, namely someone of the opposite sex whose skin shade wasn't TOO different. That' not to say that there weren't SOME blacks who loved across racial lines and thus affected, but since the vast majority weren't, there wasn't the same level or breadth of discontent exceeded within the total black community that caused it to influence the priority setting process.

I'm not sure that there is an exact parallel to that phenomenon concerning the GLBT community and that involved in the same-sex marriage issue. [I'm not referring to the stupid argument our opponents have put forth in the courts that since gay men can still get women, and lesbians can likewise marry... men, there is no discrimination.] But then maybe there IS a parallel in that up until about ten years ago, marriage itself for a variety of reasons (being seen as an oppressive institution by some, something that limited sexual freedom by others) wasn't viewed as all that important or desirable by maybe the great majority of gays and lesbians. Now that has significantly changed. Whether that change is due to changing societal attitudes, visiblity, success in other GLBT civil rights areas, or the like, I'm not sure. But it does still seem to me that the overall dynamics/history of the two civil rights movements are just different enough that it's hard to apply the lessons of one to the other.

Well, Alex, like you, I've gone on too long with this comment....and I'm the one who triggered it with my original post. Since I'm one-half on an interracial couple the matter is of more than academic interest in our male household.

Leland Frances | August 14, 2007 5:26 PM

From his obsession with marriage, one would think that all of Sullivan's online searches for fellow sex pigs to have unprotected sex with him [Bill Clinton, to Sullivan, was "reckless" but Andy's apparently just a girl who wants to have fun] has landed him a love muffin. Anyone seen Jeff Gannon recently?

I concede that Sullivan can be brilliant, but serious attention to him most often ends up filed under, "Even a broken clock is right twice a day." Remember his ever more irrational and irresponsible declarations that "AIDS is over"?

Not forgetting Sullivan's promotion of the racist drivel of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, again, it is not unfair to point out that Sullivan wasn't born yet when Arendt's article appeared, and didn't even live in the US until a quarter century later. So without time to pursue documentation ourselves, one must take his claim of the extent of his claims of its importance which he could only know from other's work with a large supply of salt. It would not be the first time he has parsed facts to suit his own premise.

Similarly, Obama was not yet 6-years old when the Supreme Court’s decision in “Loving v. the State of Virginia” overturned anti-miscegenation laws. That was the year the Hawaii native moved to Jakarta. So his knowledge and perceptions, too, of exactly what was and was not a conflict between civil rights leaders at the time is strictly secondhand.

Personally, I recall no sit-ins at clerks’ offices over their refusal to issue mixed-race marriage licenses. I recall no one attacked by dogs and police batons at mixed-race marriage ceremonies. No surrounding of jails where those arrested for mixed-race marriage like the Lovings were held. In fact, their particular case was handled from day one by two Jewish lawyers for the ACLU [not ML King, et al.] the Lovings found after being referred there by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to whom Mrs. Loving had written. Such laws were certainly of concern to the movement, but I’m aware of no evidence that it caused a crisis in which King et al., had to abandon or weaken their fight for other issues to pursue this one. The Loving lawsuit, in fact, was fought pro bono and initiated AFTER the monumental Civil Rights Act had been signed. [The Lovings, by the way, had legally married in D.C., but were arrested around 2 a.m. one morning sometime after having returned to their home in Virginia. Class can you say, “Full Faith and Credit Clause”?]

Sullivan needlessly insults LGBTs not in relationships, or in ones they have no desire to “legalize.” His attempt to define an “either/or” situation is logically and practically absurd, as Alex makes clear. His motivation can only be to once again attempt to prove himself wiser than all the rest of us [remember: “AIDS IS OVER!”]. As for Obama, he insults the Lovings and others before them who suffered at the hands of racists, and the movement which put him in the place he is today; a movement of which he knows less contemporaneously or first hand than I, a white man, know. I’m sorry to say that I fear his comments are merely meant to distract us from our efforts to fight for many things at once, and, as such, insults our intelligence, too.

On his road to understanding what real “equality” is, and not just as how he defines it, he might well read the words below attributed to the now-widowed Mrs. Loving in June:

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about. END QUOTE.

Leland Frances | August 14, 2007 5:33 PM

According to ABC News, on the 40th anniversary of "Loving v." in June, the 1970 US Census [the first after the ruling] recorded over 300,000 interracial couples in the US.

Leland Frances | August 14, 2007 10:03 PM

Since my earlier post, I discovered that the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund was involved to a degree in the Loving case. That does not, however, change the fact that neither Sullivan nor Obama have made the case that the marriage battle then or now was/is counterproductive based on resources alone.