At first I wasn’t sure I had heard right. “…Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
Does Obama, I wondered, mean that Stonewall? Or is there some battle by that name I’ve never learned about?
It soon became clear, that yes, he was referring to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like everyone else under the law.”
This is significant, I thought. A Reuters report this morning notes that “Obama’s inclusion of gay rights—still opposed by many conservatives—among his list of priorities might have been unthinkably divisive as recently as his first inauguration in 2009.” It would at least have been unthinkably risky for a traditional, centrist politician with an instinctive inclination towards compromise.
But much has changed. Public opinion polls show rising support for gay rights including the right to marry; over the last few years those in support for the latter have become significantly more numerous than opponents. A USA TODAY poll shows 73% of 18 to 29 year olds supporting gay marriage.
Seven states legalized same-sex marriage during Obama’s first term. In July 2011 a federal appeals court effectively ended the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (Now openly gay people can drop bombs on Waziristan.) The National Cathedral is now performing gay marriages. Nobody bats an eyelash when Anderson Cooper comes out as gay. School bullying of gays has declined. Gay-straight alliances have become mainstream, and the influence of religion-based homophobia is on the wane.
Internationally, six more countries have legalized same-sex marriage in the last several years. In June 2011 the UN Human Rights Council passed, 23 to 19, a resolution condemning violence and discrimination against persons based on their sexual preference. In Europe, social democrats who have sold their souls to austerity programs are trying to bolster their progressive credentials by embracing gay rights. It has become less risky politically; indeed, in some places, it’s become de rigueur.
Obama describes his views on gay marriage as “evolving” and points to the influence of his wife and daughters on his evolving thought. (Joe Biden’s announcement for his own support for gay marriage, which slightly preceded Obama’s statement in favor last June, may have influenced the timing of the latter.) They are evolving to mirror the attitude shift we see throughout society. He has more to gain than lose politically for taking his stand at this point.
Still, the specific reference to Stonewall—to several days of violent anti-police rioting in Greenwich Village—was risky. Wasn’t he endorsing rock-throwing? Hundreds fought back in the wee hours of the morning June 28, 1969, when cops busted into a Mafia-owned gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, announcing “Police! We’re taking the place!” They miscalculated as they tried to force patrons (divided into cross-dressers, whom the police wanted to search and, if found to be male, arrest, other gay men, and lesbians) into separate rooms where they were searched and asked for identification. Many refused to produce IDs or submit to searches; a large crowd amassed, police vehicles were attacked, cops were hit with coins and rocks, garbage cans set ablaze.
This was no Seneca Falls (a peaceful two-day women’s rights convention in New York in 1848) or Selma, Alabama (where non-violent actions in 1965 contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act). It was violent resistance. That Obama should feel a need to validate it in such a high profile forum is significant.
But meanwhile, in many respects, Obama remains a continuation of Bush. As he announced that “a decade of war is now ending,” his drone war killed three more “suspected militants” in Yemen—another statement that the U.S. has the right to target anyone, anywhere suspected of wanting to attack U.S. nationals or the forces of governments that work with the U.S. are fair targets for annihilation at the president’s discretion.
Obama withdrew from Iraq, but in accordance with the agreement signed by the U.S. and the Iraqi regime of al-Maliki at the end of Bush’s second term. He can take no credit for this, other than to note that he didn’t try to undo it very aggressively—although he did, in fact, try to persuade the Iraqis to accept the ongoing presence of thousands of U.S. troops. (They declined.)
Obama not only continued the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, but dramatically escalated it, making it his own. Over 70% of U.S. fatalities in that dozen year-old war have occurred under his administration, while the Taliban continues to resist, while “green-on-blue” attacks proliferate, while U.S. commanders conclude a military over the Taliban is impossible, while intelligence reports confirm that the entire operation is spreading anti-American feeling and hence further jeopardizing U.S. security rather than enhancing it.
In foreign policy Obama has differed from Dubya in several respects. Aside from ordering the “surge” in Afghanistan, he has made drones his weapon of choice, his signature contribution to the global war Bush called the “War on Terror.” His 298 drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 500 and 800 civilians, infuriated the Pakistani people and destabilized that populous, nuclear-armed nation.
While distancing himself somewhat from the Israeli government, mildly criticizing its illegal settlements policy and declining (so far) to attack Iran on Israel’s behalf, Obama continues to threaten Iran. He continues to encourage the false perception encouraged by the media that Iran has a nuclear weapons program threatening Israel and the world. Following the joint U.S.-NATO operation to topple Qadafy in Libya (producing an even worse regime), he mulls over intervening in Syria, and already orders his air force to deliver French troops to the battlefields of yet another war-of-choice, this time in Mali.
Thus you can be the president of an imperialist country, carrying on as normal, killing from the Af-Pak borderlands to the Sahel, presiding over much evil, and still pose as a cutting-edge advocate of human rights, in this case declaring that “if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Powerful words equalizing hetero- and homosexual loves.
But where are the soaring cadences affirming the equal right of the dispossessed Palestinians to the lands appropriated by Zionist settlers? Or the equal right of Iranians to develop nuclear energy under IAEA supervision with the right of the Israelis, who have never signed the NPT and refuse any supervision of their nuclear weapons program, to build power plants?
Where’s the ringing affirmation of the people of Bahrain to topple their oppressive regime (that sponsors the U.S. Fifth Fleet), as the Tunisians, Egyptians and Yemenis toppled theirs? And how is Obama standing up to the Iraqi regime’s assault on gay rights once grudgingly conceded by the secularist Baathist regime? Where the support for the right of marginalized, frightened, oppressed people thousands of miles from Greenwich Village to attack the police having been attacked by them?
Obama selects his causes carefully, politically. It’s good he has, in his own understated way, paid tribute to the Stonewall uprising. I’m sure many thousands are Google-searching that term since the speech, maybe some feeling inspired by what they learn. But as we revisit the Stonewall experience, should we not also recall how the Obama administration arms the police in countries like Saudi Arabia where gays are flogged, lashed or executed? And should we not note that the campaign for gay rights, however important, is no substitute for a campaign to topple U.S. imperialism, the endless source of war?
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org