“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
This is increasingly the live-and-let-live society we inhabit — particularly younger America. In a Times/CBS News poll in April, 57 percent of those under 40 supported same-sex marriage. The approval figure for all ages (42 percent) has nearly doubled in just five years. On Tuesday the California Supreme Court will render its opinion on that state’s pox on gay marriage, Proposition 8. Since Prop 8 passed last fall, four states have legalized gay marriage and New Hampshire is about to. This rapid change has been greeted not by a backlash, but by a national shrug — just as a seemingly gay “American Idol” victory most likely would have been.
And yet the changes aren’t coming as fast as many gay Americans would like, and as our Bill of Rights would demand. Especially in Washington. Despite Barack Obama’s pledges as a candidate and president, there is no discernible movement on repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or the Defense of Marriage Act. Both seem more cruelly discriminatory by the day.
But when Congressional Republicans try to block gay civil rights — last week one cadre introduced a bill to void the recognition of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia — they just don’t have the votes to get their way. The Democrats do have the votes to advance the gay civil rights legislation Obama has promised to sign. And they have a serious responsibility to do so. Let’s not forget that “don’t ask” and DOMA both happened on Bill Clinton’s watch and with his approval. Indeed, in the 2008 campaign, Obama’s promise to repeal DOMA outright was a position meant to outflank Hillary Clinton, who favored only a partial revision.
So what’s stopping the Democrats from rectifying that legacy now? As Wolfson said to me last week, they lack “a towering national figure to make the moral case” for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South. When Obama invoked same-sex marriage in an innocuous joke at the White House correspondents’ dinner two weeks ago — he and his political partner, David Axelrod, went to Iowa to “make it official” — it seemed all the odder that he hasn’t engaged the issue substantively.
The gay civil rights movement has fewer obstacles in its path than did Dr. King’s Herculean mission to overthrow the singular legacy of slavery. That makes it all the more shameful that it has fewer courageous allies in Washington than King did. If “American Idol” can sing out for change on Fox in prime time, it ill becomes Obama, of all presidents, to remain mute in the White House.