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Marriage Equality

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
May 23, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

Barack Obama's first presidential campaign elevated expectations with the populist slogan, "Change you can believe in." His mixed-race heritage made electing the first African-American to the U.S. presidency a profoundly resonant moment in American history. But until earlier this month, his hesitation to support gay marriage felt insincere and political now that LGBT rights have become the defining civil rights issue of the century. So when Vice President Joe Biden and two of Obama's cabinet ministers publicly embraced gay marriage and the president quickly followed suit, it was no surprise that public opinion polls likewise showed Americans doubting the president's sincerity.

Nearly every cohort among his liberal, progressive, democratic, youthful, African-American, Latino, or anti-war base has found something disappointing in Obama's presidency. His White House has developed a reputation as the most politically calculating in history. His leadership style is conflict averse. Until recently, Obama seemed to believe that in the market of public policy, the best ideas will prevail, or can be negotiated through bipartisan dialogue.

But Washington no longer solves its domestic battles in such a civilized manner. Making matters worse for public servants, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which legalizes "superPACs" unlimited private funds for campaign finance, may be the most significant threat since the Civil War to the hopes for fairness Obama embodied on that memorable election night in 2008, when as president-elect he walked on the stage of Chicago's Grant Park.

Obama can't compete with Mitt Romney for superPAC funding. He needs money from wealthy gay donors. And he must fire up progressives, making sure young people especially come out to vote this November. But were Obama's motives only political and financial? I don't think it really matters.

Six years ago at my children's school, a group of parents created the Gay Straight Parent Alliance to help our school incorporate gay rights into its existing civil rights curriculum. Some reluctant parents wrongly conflated the goal of teaching children to regard the choice to love someone of the same gender as a fundamental civil right, with teaching them about sexual behavior. It took a few years to show the parents the difference, and to move beyond the somewhat denigrating message of "tolerance," to the concept of full equality and protection under the law. The pedagogical exercise our school undertook, and that the country as a whole is struggling with, just got a big boost from the President of the United States. With just 122 words, he laid down a marker against which future laws and cultural norms will be measured.

Voters in southern swing states may reject Obama over gay marriage. But the economy, not social issues, will decide the national election. Whatever the outcome, and whatever the calculus behind his decision to come out for gay marriage, President Obama offered Americans another Grant Park moment. Like his election four years ago, he boosted the country's capacity to embrace diversity, not as some politically correct mantra, but as an essential ingredient of genuine democracy.

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