A brave and welcome move


A GAY couple and their surrogate child are the central characters of a new US sitcom on NBC, “The New Normal”. The title says it all. And other popular TV reflects that reality: on “Glee” a transgender character is set to compete in a sing-off; on “Greys Anatomy” Arizona and Callie adjust to married life, wife and wife; on the country’s top-rated “Modern Family”, a gay couple is planning an adoption ...

And so, when President Barack Obama told a TV interviewer on Wednesday that “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” it was hardly the breaking of the taboo it would have been a decade ago. Or, 16 years ago when Democrat Bill Clinton signed into law the Defence of Marriage Act, allowing states to refuse to recognise same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere.

Obama’s welcome decision is, however, a politically brave one, compared with some justice to Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 embrace of civil rights, and with all the attendant political perils. The gay vote is limited, much already supportive of him, in part because of his abolition of restrictions on gays in the military. The issue is toxic with evangelicals and conservatives, although they were never going to vote for him. But, among some of Obama’s natural constituency, blacks and Hispanics, there are also strong reservations about gay marriage. The president is certainly taking a chance.

Three days ago voters in a state that may be key to his re-election, North Carolina, backed by a substantial majority an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage, the 31st state to do so. But the climate has been changing. Last weekend a Gallup poll found that 50 per cent of Americans now support gay marriage, up from just 40 per cent four years ago. Among those who register as Independents, a key voting bloc for Obama, 57 per cent approve of gay marriage, among Democrats, 65 per cent, though only 22 per cent of Republicans. The young overwhelmingly approve.

It is clear, moreover, that most blacks will not see the issue as decisive to their vote, and his team hopes that Brand Obama will benefit from a perception that he is “doing the right thing” out of conviction rather than calculation. It should also help fundraising – last night Obama was chez George Clooney drawing at the gay-sympathetic Hollywood well, while a review of his top “bundlers” (cash raisers who have brought in $500,000 or more), shows that one in six claims to be gay.

His support will not, of itself, legalise gay marriage. Indeed, there is no legislation currently before Congress, while Mitt Romney is even talking of enshrining a ban in the constitution. But Obama’s voice will have a powerful effect. As New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has noted, no expansion of rights embraced by a president has failed to become the law of the land. And, as importantly, it sends out from the White House a signal to young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality that it is alright to be gay, to declare themselves to be gay, and that if you are gay you belong as much to the nation as your straight brother or sister. That you will some day soon be treated as an equal.

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