At a press conference shortly after signing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, President Barack Obama was asked about his feelings on gay marriage. The two major items on the agenda of the LGBT community as Barack Obama took office were repeal of DADT and gay marriage.
In a few short words in response to the question, he spoke volumes. He said, “My feelings on this issue are constantly evolving.” This phrase is rarely used and yet it is the key element in how we as a people change societal norms.
Think of the civil rights movement. Interestingly enough, one of the early steps to advance equal rights for African-Americans was President Harry Truman’s decision in 1948 to desegregate the armed forces. This is somewhat parallel to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
When Truman integrated the armed forces, most of white America was in no hurry to accelerate the pace of integration. In 1948 the Ku Klux Klan was still very active and lynchings continued in the south until the 1960s. The period following World War II brought a second wave of migration of African-Americans from the South to northern and eastern industrial cities.
Most white Americans were not ready to have African-Americans go to school with their children, work beside them in a factory or office, go to the same restaurants as them, stay in the same hotels as them. The idea of inter-racial marriage was a taboo to some; sinful to others.
What happened so that white Americans came to accept African-Americans to the extent that they do now? We are not without racial discrimination, but we have made remarkable progress since Harry Truman integrated the armed forces.
We evolved; that’s what happened. The white citizens among us came to accept rights for African-Americans that would have been unthinkable one or two generations ago. How did the evolution occur?
A good place to start would be with a simple quote from Dr. Martin Luther King when he was speaking at St. Louis University in the mid-1960s. He said, “Laws may not change the hearts of people but laws will change their habits.”
This is why Dr. King and so many other civil rights advocates wanted legislation to protect the rights of African-Americans. The law sets boundaries for behavior and when necessary it forced us to change our habits. As individuals and society in general change habits, we evolve. We see things from a different perspective. What was previously unthinkable in time becomes common-place.
Anyone over forty years of age will remember when they started to see interracial couples. Some were thrilled others were outraged. But what everyone had in common is that they noticed. The more we noticed the more it became part of our regular visual scenery. It went from the realm of the unusual to the usual. Most individuals of all races now accept interracial relationships and marriage without question.
Civil rights evolved in stages from the military to voting rights, to housing, to public accommodations and now to interracial marriage. Who knows what would have happened if Dr. King, John Lewis, and other civil rights leaders had pushed in the 1960s to ensure the legality of interracial marriage. It’s almost certain that it would have been rejected. It’s quite likely that progress in the civil rights movement would have ceased and perhaps reversed. America needed time to evolve and the “laddered” approach to extending rights gave people time to adjust.
Anyone of Barack Obama’s age or older did not grow up with the book Heather Has Two Mommies. Initial reactions to that book probably ranged from curiosity, to mild annoyance, to absolute objection. More and more heterosexual Americans are now accepting same-sex marriage. But for most people, acceptance was not immediate; it required time to evolve. When President Obama said that his views on the issue are constantly evolving, he was acknowledging that he was going through a process that most heterosexual Americans have done or are in the process of doing.
It’s possible that he is now personally quite comfortable with same-sex marriage, but he needs to evolve more before advocating full legal protection for it. He wants to give the American people more time to live with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and other advances in LGBT rights. Hopefully a time will come when public opinion on same-sex marriage will have evolved as it did with the repeal of DADT and he will be on terra firma to advocate legal protection. That will have been evolution.
President Obama’s use of the word “evolving” can teach us a great deal about issues both public and private. “Evolving” means moving from one place to another. Prima facie, that means that there is more than one place where someone can be positioned on an issue. It takes us beyond the mentality of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” It allows us to accept the complexities of life.
America is a work in progress; we continue to evolve whether our leaders desire it or not. It would be very helpful if the Democratic Party would embrace evolving opinions rather than try to imitate Republicans in locking themselves into rigid positions of judgment. Same-sex marriage is an issue where the Democratic Party can strive to keep pace with public opinion and at the right time jump into the lead to codify another civil liberty. In just eight words, President Obama taught us an important lesson. It would serve all of us well to try to emulate his approach.