(Image by Nikole Handel used under Creative Commons license via)
“Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Unless you’ve somehow managed to ignore all Western media except my blog this week, you know that Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president to voice full support for marriage equality. As expected, opponents of the cause are united in their outrage, while supporters are split between those who see a social victory and those who see mere political calculation.
I understand the cynical/frustrated reaction. When it comes to any issues of equality and civil rights, the idea that At last the president considers you a full human being! can feel like ice cold comfort. The idea that you have to “wait” for a majority to grow to accept you as you are, that support for your rights is considered politically “risky” or “courageous” is supremely depressing. The idea that you should be “grateful” to anyone for believing that the way you were born is as valid as the way they were born can be soul-crushing. I love my parents to pieces, but I don’t like thinking I should thank them for not dumping me in an institution or an orphanage at birth, as so many other parents of dwarfs have done.
But to see the struggle toward justice only in these harsh terms, however true they may be, is to ensure that the entire process will be nothing but painful. It is the right of any disenfranchised person to do so, but they should always understand that when others celebrate, it’s comes from self-preservation, from the need to transform pent-up fury into explosive joy when an opportunity finally arises.
When Obama was elected, it would have been entirely valid to view the historic moment only as a cruel reminder of America’s long history of injustice: What kind of a nation takes 230 years to consider someone with a certain skin color electable?! But very few Obama supporters—black or white—saw it this way. When the votes came in on November 4th, 2008, when the state that had only 41 years before fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep interracial couples apart ended up swinging left and ensured that night that the next president would be the son of just such a couple, we were shocked. And the shock felt fantastic. All the exhausting work that went in to combating those 230 years of injustice had to come out somehow and most felt they had little choice about the tears streaming down their face.
That’s why I’ve found myself beaming at this week’s headlines emblazoned above the president’s likeness. I did the same in the summer of 2003 when my radio told me that nine judges had just ruled that gay men and women were no longer allowed to be arrested anywhere in the United States for simply being gay. Sure it was sickening to consider that just two decades before, nine judges had ruled the other way, upholding Georgia’s right to imprison two men who had been happened upon in their own home by a police officer. But as I stopped my car to take it all in, I reveled in the fact that, no matter the political calculation or nit-picking bureaucracy involved, bigotry had lost that day.
Whatever his personal beliefs, of which we will never be certain, President Obama has just placed himself on the right side of history. If one interprets this in the most cynical way—i.e., that he only did it to fire up his base and win votes—it’s our democracy in action, indicating that the majority is leaning toward equality. (And thank god he didn’t use that phrase “I’ve learned not to judge gays and lesbians,” a cop-out that implies there is something morally ambiguous to judge.) Bigotry is an inexcusable force that has been obstructing equality for far too long, but it’s losing the battle. And I can’t think of any better reason to stop, if only just for a moment, and celebrate.