Maybe you’ve heard about it, but yesterday the President said that he believes gay people should be allowed to get married. It’s kind of a big deal. Obama is the first sitting President to come out in favor of gay marriage. The last one made a re-election strategy out of opposition to same, and whether it worked or not, yesterday’s announcement is likely to be a branding issue until November. The screencap above—from Fox News’s mad cousin, Fox Nation, which subsequently changed its headline—suggests the kind of discourse we can look forward to. So yeah—probably half the country will say infuriating things while the rest of us address the most pressing civil rights issue of our time.
That’s an estimate, of course. Nobody knows how many Americans actually care enough about gay marriage for it to influence their votes in November. The President must believe a substantial number are on his side, or he wouldn’t make this announcement in May of an election year. It’s possible that Joe Biden forced his hand with his remarks on TV Sunday, but it’s more likely that the Vice President is functioning like an enormous dude’s drunk girlfriend: he starts it so the President can finish it.
Like any good cracked-plate story, though, Obama’s explanation of how he reached this position and why he announced it now features more than one inciting incident. Joe Biden made him do it, but also it was the First Lady. “My wife convinced me” is a smart narrative, considering that Fox is likely to dial up the War On Marriage machine to a deafening pitch. It may not work on a rational level, but the image of Michelle Obama steadily urging her husband toward his current position refutes the notion that gay marriage somehow works against straight.
That claim—and the Orwellian rhetoric by which the people who support expanding marriage rights are the ones who have declared war on marriage—is the rotten core of the anti-equality argument. There is no evidence I know of to support the claim that letting gay people get married will weaken marriage generally, whatever “weaken” might mean. It’s possible that narrative will change now that it can actually be argued publicly by individuals of comparable power. All the President will have to say, when the issue comes up in future debates with Mitt Romney, is “show me how allowing gay marriage hurts straight people,” and silence or gobbledygook must ensue. The answer to the inverse—show me how banning same-sex marriage hurts gay people—is clear.
That’s how you know it’s a rights issue. Every gay person in the world could couple off and go to Fire Island and it would affect my marriage prospects not one bit, not only because I’m repellant but also because of how the marriage market works. By definition, anyone whom I would marry* will not be affected by the legalization of same-sex marriage. That inescapable truth is the fatal weakness in the anti-marriage position. The crusader against same-sex marriage must actively devote himself to making laws that only affect other people. He must be a denier of liberty.
That’s a problem for a GOP that has made “freedom and small government” its mantra. When gay marriage had no pro side—when the Republican Party was against it and the Democratic Party didn’t want to talk about it—the argument could be carried by inertia. Tradition and prejudice won via default. But tradition and prejudice construct poor arguments—viz. Little Rock, viz. 19th Amendment—and they inevitably fail when real people ask them to put forth reasons instead of feelings. The argument against gay marriage sounded more like an argument when it debated an empty podium. Now that one of the better campaigners in recent memory is standing at that podium, the reasons to prevent gay marriage are going to sound more like simple bigotry.
Maybe the United States is still a bigot nation, and President Obama’s decision will cost him votes in November. That would be a bummer, but it would be worth it. Regardless of what yesterday’s announcement does to the President’s electoral prospects, it has reframed the debate over gay marriage as an actual debate—one with two sides and, like, arguments. For the first time in American history, just showing up will not be enough to restrict gay rights. It probably won’t be enough to defend them, either, but at least our side has a candidate now, too.