Saturday, May 12, 2012


You’ve got to love the cynics. They are never lost for words.

No matter how magical the moment, how historical, how profound, there’s an always an opportunity for cynics to wax eloquent. As long as you’re dealing with human beings, there will always be people who will point out ulterior motives, selfish interests, and hidden hypocrisy. And the funny thing is, they’ll be right. At bottom, we’re never completely candid, generally quite self-centered, and invariably inconsistent. And that applies even more to our politicians.

This week, for the first time in our nation’s history, a sitting U.S. President came out in support of gay marriage. What’s more, this was a President who is running for re-election. So what do the cynics want to talk about? What else? The phoniness of Barack Obama’s words and the political expediency of their timing. Well, OK, my cynical friends, I realize that you have no choice but to go there. God forbid you could ever say something affirming about either the President or gay marriage. It’s as natural for you to be negative at a time like this as it is natural for many men and women to be gay. So I’ll tell you what. Out of a spirit of solidarity, let me play your cynical game, at least for a few paragraphs.

Here’s how I understand the rules. My job as a cynic is to present human beings in the most uncharitable way possible. And in doing so, in order to show that we cynics are hard-headed, objective people, unlike the suckers who buy into myths and legends, I am obliged to speak nothing but the truth. So here’s my attempt to speak honestly about Barack Obama’s announcement in a way that would allow me admission into any Cynics Society, including the one that is convened daily on Fox News. When I’m done, I’ll show that these are but small truths for small-minded people.

“Barack Obama is full of it when he spoke this week about his personal ‘evolution’ on the issue of gay marriage. He didn’t change his personal views on the issue. He has supported marriage equality for years. This is why, when he first ran for state office in Illinois in the mid 90s, he announced his support for gay marriage. Shortly thereafter, he realized that it wasn’t expedient to come out in favor of something that the vast majority of his constituents opposed, so he hid his true beliefs. That attitude continued up to the present. In his heart of hearts, throughout the time that he was pretending to oppose gay marriage rights, he thought that all consenting adults, gays included, had every right to enter into monogamous marriages. He simply was afraid of losing votes by making that view public. Like many gay people, he kept his true attitude in the closet.

“Barack Obama ran four years ago as a different kind of politician – a real progressive change agent who will encourage the American public to dream big dreams and help these dreams become a reality. He knew the importance of civil rights, and understood that in the minds of progressives, gay or straight, marriage equality for gay people is at the heart of today’s civil rights movement. But Barack Obama is, above all else, a calculating politician. And when a choice is presented between fighting for something he believes in (even if it involves civil rights) and getting re-elected, he’ll opt for the path of political expediency. In that sense, all that ‘hopey-changey’ stuff he spoke about four years ago was largely smoke and mirrors. And the fact that America bought into it was something that this political Geppetto had every reason to count on; as P.T. Barnum once said, there’s a sucker born every minute.

“Public opinion polls show, for the first time ever, that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Now and only now does Barack Obama have the guts to announce his true opinions. Does that make him a heroic figure? Hardly. Now that’s he’s running against a baron of Bain Capital, Obama has lost his touch in raising funds from Wall Street. He desperately needed an infusion of cash from such gay-marriage-crazed constituencies as the Hollywood and LGBT communities. Besides, if he were a real hero, he would have extended his so-called ‘heroism’ to taking ground breaking views on other issues that would involve more direct confrontations with big corporations. If you think about it, corporate CEOs could care less about gay marriage. Some have even announced their support of it, no doubt to show that they are ‘good guys’ and not like the rapacious jerks that they appear to be in Hollywood movies.

“At the end of the day, I don’t doubt that the gay lobbyists are pleased with the massive progress that has been made during the Obama Administration. But their movement stands alone among progressive causes. The citizens for economic justice have little to show for their efforts. The environmentalists can say the same, as can the human rights activists and the immigration rights activists. Clearly, this President doesn’t want to rock the boat any more than he has to in order to get re-elected. He has made a calculation that supporting gay marriage at this time will work to his political benefit. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong, but nothing he’s done shows that he’s a hero. The vast body of his work points to the conclusion that he is just another calculating, opportunistic politician. For all his claim to being a black pioneer, he’s no Rosa Parks and no Jackie Robinson.”

There. I said it. And it doesn’t make this past week any less magical or profound. You see, I didn’t come today to cyberspace in order to bury our Caesar, but rather to praise him. What he did is beyond wonderful. And any progressive who would approach this announcement cynically needs some serious therapy.

Speaking personally, the issue of gay rights is near and dear to my heart. I remember back in middle school watching the gay male students getting treated like circus freaks, except that they were “laughed at” rather than “laughed with.” I remember in college, when the luck of the draw brought me a gay roommate (who has become a lifelong friend). I had to hear about how he scandalously was seen “in the bushes holding hands” with another boy. It became clear by then that gay men are largely viewed by their straight counterparts as some kind of combination of icky and disabled.

I remember going to a gay bar with my college roommate and his friends, hoping that I could gain some anthropological insights, and praying that none of the other denizens of that bar would walk up to me and either touch me (talk about an assault!) or ask me to dance. I should have realized that I was a neurotic East-Coast Jew living in California, and the men there would be no more attracted to me than were the women. The fact is that not a soul approached me that evening who I didn’t already know, and if you ask me what I learned from watching the goings on at the bar … it is that gay people like to have fun. There’s a newsflash for you.

I remember a point after college when I was a student teacher, and I told a group of high school students that the nation’s next Martin Luther King will come from the homosexual rights movement. I remember going to gay marriage marches both with friends and alone, feeling that I didn’t really belong because I wasn’t gay, but also feeling that I didn’t dare call myself a progressive if I wasn’t willing to march. I remember the first time one of my daughters told me she was gay. And I remember how proud I felt last Sunday when, at the University of Maryland, she alone received the university citizenship award that goes to the student who does the most to promote LGBT interests on campus. I also remember thinking about how ashamed so many fathers would be of their daughters for receiving such an award. And that made me feel both icky and disabled for being a part of my species.

When it comes to gay rights, we’ve come so far. But we have so far to go.

In my Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society, we have reached the point where we can speak candidly and passionately about virtually every issue – except gay rights. Almost to a person, the Muslims I know believe that homosexuality is a sin. The Evangelical Christian community clearly is in accord. And that is why it has become so common in this country for parents to send their children to counseling in order to steer them back to “health” and heterosexuality.

In most contexts, I argue vociferously with those who think that religion is a bad thing. Religion gives us meaning, community, and a vehicle for our gratitude at being alive. But when it comes to the topic of homosexuality, religion gets a big black eye. Not only does it make us a society of bigots, but it spiritually grounds us in our bigotry. Talk about horrific.

In my state of Maryland, even though the legislature recently approved a bill permitting gay marriage, we are expecting a referendum on the ballot this fall that would give the residents a chance to bypass the views of our elected officials. Prior to this week, I would have said that Maryland is one of those states where if you poll our people, most would say they support gay marriage, but if you let them cast a secret ballot in a voting booth, most would vote against it. This is the reality that Barack Obama faced when he made his historic announcement. No matter what the polls say, the referenda to date have been squarely AGAINST marriage equality. Our side even lost in liberal California. Imagine how they would vote in Ohio, Florida, or the other swing states?

Maryland, though, is not a swing state. And now, thanks to the President’s announcement, I am actually optimistic about our upcoming referendum. I think he will have changed the mind of enough African Americans who would have otherwise voted with their “faith,” but are gradually evolving to accept that gay rights are the civil rights of our day. The best news of all is that if you only polled voters under 50 about the issue, gay rights would win hands down.

I don’t view President Obama as a hero, but I do view him as a master campaigner and an essentially benign soul. He realized that he wasn’t going to win this election if he couldn’t claim the moral high ground over his opponent, at least in the minds of his base. He realized that he had to do something to rally his troops, and there is nothing better able to do that than taking on the last bastion of unabashed bigotry in our society – homophobia. Fortunately, our society has evolved to the point where days after Obama’s announcement, Republicans are still trying to figure out how big an issue to make of this. I don’t doubt that they can score some points in certain swing states, but it now appears that for the most part, American moderates have turned the page. Even though most of these moderates may vote against marriage equality, that won’t dominate their thoughts when they cast their ballots for President in November. Only on the rightward fringe are people deeply scared of gay marriage. Most sane heterosexuals have seen that it doesn’t do anything to destroy our own marriages. And when men like Rush Limbaugh, who change wives like the rest of us change underwear, talk about Obama ruining the sanctity of marriage, mainstream America can do nothing other than laugh.

Really, when you think about it, Obama’s announcement stands primarily for the principle that as a candidate, he doesn’t want to come across as a phony. This week, he told us what he really thinks. Why shouldn’t we just applaud that? Why shouldn’t we feel good in the knowledge that for all the problems we’ve had with bigotry in our nation’s history, at least the trend is a relentlessly positive one? Even when it comes to homophobia, which is among our most intractable problems, with each generation, Americans get more and more accepting. I can take solace in the fact that my daughter won’t have to feel like such a “hero” for not being in the closet. I don’t want her to be a hero; I just want her to be happy. I want her to feel normal. Because you know what? She is normal. It’s the bigots of our society, the ones who have heretofore been in the majority, they’re the ones who have issues. If you don’t believe me, ask any resident of America in 2200, or 2500, or 2800. They’ll tell you which attitudes are normal, and which ones are prehistoric.

My cynical friends, bash Barack Obama all you want for being a phony on gay marriage for more than a decade. But at least when he was opposing marriage equality, he was light years more humane on the subject than Mitt Romney. Mitt was taking the position at the time that a state should be able to deny a gay person the right to have full hospital visitation rights, even if the couple have been monogamous for 50 years. Now that’s crazy.

This reminds me of the first story I remember from attending Harvard Law School, the same law school where both Obama and Romney got their degrees. The Dean told us a story about two friends who were camping in the woods. Then they saw a big bear. When one guy started running, the other one yelled out, “Why are you running, you can’t outrun that bear.”

“I don’t have to,” his friend replied. “I just have to outrun you.”

Barack Obama is a master politician. As a candidate, he knows he doesn’t have to outrun the bear – he doesn’t have to be a hero. All he has to do is claim the high ground over Mitt Romney. This week, he claimed that high ground. And as a proud ally of the LGBT community, I am eternally grateful he did.


Mary Lois said...

You had me scared for a minute, Dan, as I read your opening. I thought maybe you'd abandoned my man Obama entirely. I'm proud of him, but I'm always proud of him. I'm just glad those who felt he should have rushed in with guns blazing as soon as he was elected are giving him credit for speaking out at last. He's leading on this one, and nobody seems to know what to make of that.

Daniel Spiro said...

Mary Lois, he's leading "on this one." I'll give you that.

Mary Lois said...

Thank God for small mercies.