In The New Republic this week Richard Just shines the spotlight on Barack Obama’s hopelessly contradictory position on gay marriage. He compares it to Woodrow Wilson’s pathetic attempts to dodge the issue of women’s suffrage by claiming it was an issue for the states.
The issue is topical in America because the United States District Court has just found that Proposition 8 — a recent California constitutional amendment, passed by referendum, prohibiting same sex marriage — violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. The President responded to this development by saying: “I am not in favor of gay marriage, but when you’re playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that that is not what America is about.” As Just puts it:
Obama appears to be saying that it is fine to prohibit gay people from getting married, as long as the vehicle for doing so is not a constitution. Presumably, then, he supports the numerous states that have banned same-sex marriage through other means, without resorting to a constitutional amendment? If so, he might be the only person in the country to occupy this narrow, and frankly absurd, slice of intellectual terrain.
There is an ongoing debate in the US about whether legislative change or judicial rulings are the best way to achieve marriage equality. There is certainly a good case for the latter, affirming the right as an inherent liberty rather than a privilege dependent on the largesse of public opinion.
In the US, in any case, judicial decisions appear at the moment to be the most promising vehicle as far as most of the country is concerned, especially if the Perry v. Schwarzenegger ruling withstands appeal.
If left to the politicians it would take a hundred years, if Obama’s unedifying squirming is any indication.
Unfortunately in Australia, cursed by a lack of constitutional protections, we will have to go on waiting for the squirming politicians to be lifted by the tide of public opinion.
The question is why we should settle for that approach, given that the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, and Argentina have already embraced full marriage equality, and according to a Galaxy poll from last year, fifty-eight percent of Australians support it. And yet our leaders on both sides seem to be not so much waiting for the tide as actively conspiring to hold it back.
On Q&A during the election campaign Cheryl Kernot praised Julia Gillard for being candid about her atheism, and I seem to recall others doing so too. At the same time, commentators have wondered how she could justify her continued opposition to same-sex marriage, especially given that she’s in a non-traditional marriage herself. Mr Rabbit also refused to contemplate gay marriage; but whereas in his case that undoubtedly reflects his true preference, I’m prepared to bet that Gillard has no personal objection whatsoever.
The opposition to gay marriage is dictated by naked political pragmatism. A change in policy might not lose Labor millions of votes, but just enough to cost them the election if the swinging voters are not part of that fifty-eight percent. As Rodney Croome puts it:
Perhaps she believes the overreaching claims of Pentecostal pastors about the influence of their mega-churches in key marginal seats. Perhaps she owes something to those right-wing Catholic MPs who are, in turn, under the unhealthy influence of Rome. Perhaps she simply wants to convince voters that she is a leader of conviction, even when she knows those convictions are wrong.
But isn’t there a double standard here? It would have been shameful if she had pretended to believe in God, but it’s understandable on grounds of political realism that she chooses to conceal her real views on same sex marriage?
One might try to resolve the paradox by noting that there is no legislation regarding the existence of God, and no ALP policy on it; whereas there is a Marriage Act, and Gillard cannot express a personal view about it that contradicts party policy. However, in this case I think she might have found a form of words to express persoanl support while noting that her hands are tied, and perhaps signalling a willingness to take the issue to the Party’s National Conference.
In the meantime she could do a lot worse than listen to this electrifying talk by David Boies, the attorney for the winning side in Perry v. Schwarzenegger.