Back in 1996, U.S. president Bill Clinton signed a bill called the Defence of Marriage Act, which effectively banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages. He didn't want to, but it was an election year, and that was one battle he couldn't afford to fight.
This week, Barack Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage – and the enemy guns fell silent. Republican leaders wisely chose to duck and cover. "The fact is, the American people are focused on our economy," House leader John Boehner told a pack of badgering reporters. It's an election year, and this is one battle the Republicans can't afford to fight.
Public attitudes toward gay marriage have been shifting fast. Half of all Americans now support same-sex marriage rights, and those who oppose them are less rabid than they were before. Support is gaining strength among women, independents and suburban voters. Even black Americans (traditionally opposed) are coming around. Meantime, most younger voters scarcely understand what all the fuss is about. In their world, gay is mainstream. The old attitudes are literally dying out.
It's easy to be cynical about all of this. Mr. Obama is temperamentally risk-averse, and no doubt did the political calculations. Yet this moment is a rare convergence of smart politics and the right thing to do. The people who were never going to vote for him still won't. Many of the people who were going to vote for him anyway will do so with considerably more enthusiasm. In a dreary slog of a campaign season, Mr. Obama has reminded us that hope and change can sometimes be for real. And when the President of the United States stands up for marriage rights, we're watching history being made.
If anyone should be worried about the politics of marriage rights, it's Mitt Romney. He's looking more and more like America's past – an elitist, intolerant, out-of-touch white guy who used to bully other kids in boarding school. I imagine he, too, would rather talk about the economy.
The airwaves are full of speculation about Mr. Obama's "evolution," and why he chose to share it with us now. I suspect his evolution isn't all that fresh. He is, after all, a sophisticated urban liberal with plenty of gay associates and friends. But I also think the evolution has been real. Back in 2004, when asked about the issue in a TV interview, he hemmed and hawed and tied himself in knots. He awkwardly tried to defend civil rights for gays while also trying to make a case for excluding them from marriage. He looked genuinely (not just politically) conflicted. I think he recognized the intellectual contradiction, but he wasn't emotionally there yet.
In other words, he's like a lot of us. I wasn't always sure about gay marriage either. I used to wonder if it really mattered. My mind was changed by Andrew Sullivan, the brilliant gay blogger. He persuaded me with a combination of logic and emotion. He wrote movingly about the emotional, spiritual and communal power of those marriage vows, and about the critical importance of marriage as a public act. He argued that the institution of marriage strengthens couples and communities. In other words, he made a profoundly conservative case for gay marriage rights. How can we deny same-sex couples the satisfactions of bourgeois normality? He persuaded me that marriage equality matters deeply. And when Canada legalized it in 2005, I was proud.
I have gay friends too – middle-aged, like me. Their early lives were harrowing. Some spent years desperately trying to deny who they were to themselves. They came of age believing they would have to choose between an open life lived on the margins, and a successful, fulfilling career in society's mainstream. Some had even married people of the other sex in hopes that they'd be "cured." They were eventually able to become themselves. But they went through hell to get there.
In the years between 1996 and now, gayness has gone mainstream. It has been normalized in a thousand different ways, from engagement notices in The New York Times to gay characters on TV shows and in the movies. Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John and other gay celebrities are popular with the general public. Gay people have acquired substantial political clout. Among the newest power couples in New York are Chris Hughes, the 28-year-old co-founder of Facebook, and his fiancé, Sean Eldridge, 25. Mr. Hughes, who is worth upwards of $700-million, has just bought the venerable New Republic. They have built a country house near Roger Ailes (the mastermind of Fox TV) and want to start a family.
People in their 20s, gay or straight, can scarcely imagine the way things used to be. So here's a taste. Maurice Sendak, the greatest children's book artist of the 20th century, died this week at 83. Everybody knows his work. But most people had no idea he was gay. (I didn't.) He lived with his beloved partner for 50 years. "All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy," he told The New York Times in 2008. "They never, never, never knew."
Marriage rights really aren't an election issue. They're a human issue. We've all evolved. It's about time.