Gay Rights

‘Negative Connotation’?

You got to love when people out-speak themselves.  Seems Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, explaining why he spent a week on a deserted island, said, "I’ve felt like a pansy, I guess, and this made it feel like I was actually doing something again."

When I fist read about his adventure, I thought, OK, not my cup of tea, but hey, whatever floats your boat.  Besides, I admired him for going there with virtually no food, though he did bring salt and pepper, which I thought at least showed a little refinement.  (If he brought thyme, basil, oregano and capers, I would have really been impressed.)  He caught fish to survive.

So then somebody raised an issue about his use of the word “pansy.”  Was it Ben Smith of Politico?  He had a piece on this headlined “Flake apologizes for ‘pansy’ remark.”

Why apologize?

"Pansy" can be used as a (somewhat dated) slur on gay men, and the comment raised some eyebrows for that reason. [Editor’s Note:  Whose eyebrows?  Smith’s?]

Flake’s spokesman, Matt Specht, emails that he didn’t mean it that way.

Well, I’m “outdated” enough to recall the use of the word to refer to gays.  (Hell, I’m old enough to remember when gay meant having a good time.)  But really, apologize?  Well, Specht doesn’t just dig the hole deeper.  He employs a backhoe.

"Congressman Flake didn’t realize that that word can have a negative connotation. He simply meant ‘wimpy.’ He apologizes if anyone took offense to it," Specht writes.

Flake, who one might say lived up to his name by his week-long stunt, wasn’t referring to gays when he employed the term.  He was talking about himself not “actually doing something.”  But he wasn’t referring to himself as gay – because that would be “negative”?!

Oy vey. (Oh, sorry, I apologize.  I’ll have my spokesman email a statement that I didn’t mean to be anti-Semitic.)

Lincoln, 1862 & Obama, 2009

Much has been made about how President Obama fashioned his cabinet after Abraham Lincoln’s by recruiting some of his adversaries and Republicans.  Whether it was to have his adversaries close or to remove them from the electoral landscape is a point of debate.  It certainly didn’t help Lincoln dissuade his Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase from attempting an aborted run against Lincoln for the nomination in 1864.  Lincoln also chose William Seward, another Republican rival, as his secretary of state.  Seward was considered the front runner before the convention.  Obama, of course, chose the early front runner to lead his State department

I have just finished reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, meaning I know just enough about Lincoln to be dangerous.

But I’m struck by a different parallel between the two presidents.  Goodwin characterizes Lincoln, especially during the early years of his presidency, as cautious, uncertain, and conciliatory.  In her book, he does not come off as an extremely confident individual during the first year of his presidency. 

Once elected, one issue Obama was expected to address fairly early was discrimination against gays.  It was thought that he would extend to gays benefits comparable to what heterosexuals have.  Perhaps not gay marriage at first, but certainly overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  Despite this week’s announcement that Obama will extend some benefits to gay in the federal workforce, the LGBT community has a right to feel disappointed.

In 1860, some leading Republicans were among those most opposed to slavery.  Once the Southern states seceded, many wanted to declare all the slaves free.  Lincoln demurred.  He did  not think black people were equal to whites, but he opposed slavery.  Yet during the first two years of his presidency, as Republicans ratcheted up calls for freeing the slaves, Lincoln resisted, even as he grew less prejudice in his view of blacks. 

Goodwin suggests that by late 1861, the reason Lincoln was still resisting issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was not because of any hesitation on his part.  Rather, she suggests that he was waiting for the country to catch up with him.  Many Northern Democrats, especially, were still against freeing the slaves, and not all moderate Republicans were there yet, either. 

But as 1862 wore on, the mood in the Northern states changed.  So that by the end of the year, the country (that is the Northern states) was ready, and so Lincoln issued the Proclamation freeing slaves living in the Confederate states.

One has to wonder if Obama is waiting for the country to catch up with liberals on gay issues.  I’ve said before that it is inevitable that gays will ultimately win this fight.  I expect gay marriage to be legal in most states in 10 years.  The younger generation is way ahead of the country on this.  But the rest of the country is catching up to them

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait 10 years.  I doubt we will.  I expect after the 2010 elections, maybe a year later, Obama will make the big moves the LGBT community is waiting for.  In fact, I would think it strategically advantageous to wait closer to the 2012 elections and hope that the Republicans jump all over the issue.  If they make it central to their presidential campaign, I think it will help sink them.

Is Obama emulating his hero and simply lying in wait?

What Is a Marriage?

Marc Fisher has a column this morning asking why Marion Berry and Barack Obama seem to be dragging their feet on gay marriage.  The problem I see is the definition of gay marriage.

In 1996, Barack Obama responded to a Chicago newspaper’s questions about the issue with these words: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

Yet during his presidential campaign and on to today, the president has said his religious faith leads him to oppose same-sex marriage (he favors civil unions for homosexual couples).

I don’t know what the difference is between a gay marriage and a gay civil union.  If you argue that marriage is a religious sacrament, I don’t think anyone is arguing that churches must marry whoever asks.  Pastors are always free to say no and often do to straight couples for a variety of reasons.

(When I was planning to be married for the second time and wanted to ensure that our future children could be baptized in the Catholic Church, my wife and I met with a nun of a church.  When we both told her we were married before, she gave a grave “Hmmmm,” and when my wife told her that her previous husband was a Jew, the nun gave a louder “Hmmmm” with a wrinkle brow thrown in.  But the church relented.)

I asked a leader in the gay rights movement in Virginia about this, and he seemed to agree that this debate is obfuscated by terminology.

This question would be less confusing if we had not yoked civil marriage to the religious sacrament of marriage: We empower ministers, etc. to simultaneously perform the duties of religious officiant and agent of the state, and then refer to both institutions by the same word. In fact, a civil marriage is a civil union. A religious marriage is whatever a given religious community wants it to be, regardless of whether it’s civilly recognized.

Indeed, my second wife and I were married by a judge.  Therefore, I guess we’re not married, but “civil unioned.”  And I’ll bet that union would not prevent us from exercising our full rights as a “married” couple.

It seems this semantic dance we’re doing is silly, unless there is something I don’t understand about the difference between a civil union and a marriage.