Is Obama really standing up for gay rights?

An examination of the claims that Barack Obama is extraordinarily supportive of gay rights.

Published April 24, 2008 4:12PM (EDT)

On Thursday, Andrew Sullivan posted to his blog a letter from a reader who was particularly impressed by the fact that, in his concession speech Tuesday night, Barack Obama apparently went out of his way to mention gay people and straight people as two groups who'd been unified by his campaign.

"I cannot recall a politician ever speaking after a loss, proclaiming that he wants to bring together gays and straights ... how amazing it is that there is a politician who is willing to stand up for us gay Americans who have been ignored for so long," the reader wrote to Sullivan. In his own comments, Sullivan wrote that Obama's remarks "will be regarded by the next generation as more evidence that Obama is the candidate of the future. He is. Quite how far into the future is what we are finding out."

I've seen this argument, this praise of Obama as being especially supportive of and good for the gay community, before. And it has always left me a little puzzled, perhaps principally because I covered the "gay debate" in which most of the Democratic candidates participated last summer and saw him -- and others, including Hillary Clinton -- dodge frantically away from looking too supportive of gay people, especially on marriage. I can see arguing that Obama may be better on the issue than previous Democratic candidates, and I can certainly see arguing that he's better on the issue than President Bush. (There's no doubting that.)

But why are we fooling ourselves? Neither Obama nor Clinton represents a great leap forward on gay rights, at least not yet. And though it's clear that in some ways, like his position on the Defense of Marriage Act, Obama is better on the issue than Clinton is, in some ways he's worse. It seems like ancient history now, but don't forget that last fall Obama took a lot of heat for including Donnie McClurkin, who calls homosexuality a "curse" and believes it can and should be cured, in a group of gospel singers that toured South Carolina on Obama's behalf. And Obama has also come under fire from local gay press, which has accused the senator of ignoring it and avoiding interviews with gay newspapers. (Clinton, on the other hand, has given those interviews.)

Moreover, while watching the "gay debate," I realized that the issue of same-sex marriage, as opposed to civil unions, is one place where it is really possible to observe a breakdown in the logic of the major Democratic candidates' positions and see the pandering underneath exposed. Here's what I wrote at the time about Obama's performance during the forum:

Obama was the first to take the stage, and he set the tone for the front-runners. Perhaps his most consistent message was that because he is African-American he understands the importance of equality under the law; that's why, he says, even though he does not support same-sex marriage, he supports civil unions, which are far more popular with the country and would grant same-sex couples equivalent legal rights. But that position opened the door for [Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese], who asked Obama, evoking the language of the landmark Supreme Court segregation decision Plessy v. Ferguson, "On the grounds of civil marriage, can you see to our community where that comes across as sounding like 'separate but equal'?"

Obama could do little but dodge.

"Look, when my parents got married in 1960, '61, it would have been illegal for them to be married in a number of states in the South. So obviously this is something that I understand intimately," he said. "But ... if I were advising the civil rights movement back in 1961 ... I would have probably said it's less important that we focus on an anti-miscegenation law than we focus on a voting rights law, a non-discrimination employment law and all the legal rights that are conferred by the state."

Again, I'm not saying Clinton is any better -- in that same article, I wrote that "in her final statement, Clinton all but said some of her best friends are gay." But I think that it was, of all people, Mike Gravel who got his assessment of the major candidates' positions on marriage right with what he said during the debate:

They're playing it safe. They're not going to lose any votes over not being for [same-sex] marriage, whatever their issues are ... What you're experiencing is politics as usual. And a gifted politician can tell you -- and I don't mean this humorously, I mean it very accurately -- a good politician can tell you to go to hell and make you look forward to the trip.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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