Is Obama Ready for Gay Marriage?

Courting the gay vote is more complex than one might think

LZ Granderson is gung-ho about President Obama’s commitment to support marriage equality. The CNN contributor recently sang the commander-in-chief’s praises in an essay, saying that after the GOP debate last week, “it would be safe to assume that President Obama pretty much has the 2012 gay vote all sewn up.”

But is Granderson rushing to judgment a bit too quickly?

Among many liberal voters, Obama has proven to be more of a moderate on many issues. And while the administration’s push to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and its refusal to honor DOMA are definitely important steps in the fight for LGBT rights in this country, it’s a little naive to suggest that Obama is an absolute supporter of gay rights and gay marriage. In fact, he has yet to actually “come out” in support of same-sex marriage, often deferring to his ongoing “consideration” of the issue. He’s described marriage as “between a man and a woman” many times in the past, worried perhaps of offending his base of supporters in the religious and African-American communities.

While Granderson may be overly optimistic about Obama’s commitment to gay marriage, he does convincingly credit the president with advancing other LGBT rights, having done more for the community than just about any other president in U.S. history. But does this really have to do with Obama’s own platform or more with expected modern societal shifts, and LGBT advocates becoming more aggressive – and organized – in working toward equal rights?

It’s not at all surprising that Obama wants to court LGBT voters. It’s an important block. And it’s one that could help reelect him as other supporters may fall off the bandwagon, particularly die-hard liberals who may feel he’s become a little too middle-road on many issues (what happened to health care and ending the war, many ask).

That’s the practical side. There’s also a personal one.

As a voter, one wants to assume that any candidate who himself has had to overcome adversity would also be more cognizant of other marginalized voices who are hoping for the same. To this point, Obama is very convincing and very eloquent on the issues – even without formally endorsing marriage equality – yet.

But it’s tricky to assume that all LGBT people have the same finger pressed to the same ballot button. The last presidential election proved as much with a fraction of the LGBT community voting for John McCain after Hillary Clinton – a gay favorite – was defeated in the primary.

Similarly, no one should underestimate the dark horse that is Fred Karger, a Republican candidate for president who just so happens to be gay. He may be low in the polls (if not obsolete) among a majority of Republican voters, but he stands a chance of courting support from more moderate and even conservative Log Cabin voters.

We should also keep in mind that LGBT issues are not simply a one-trick pony. Gays and lesbians are also just as concerned about employment and the economy as everyone else. What Obama might have going for him – in addition to his intellectual stamina on many issues that are important to gay voters – is the fact that most of the GOP candidates vying for his seat have supported some sort of anti-gay measure (with the exception of Karger who has never held office).

For starters, Mitt Romney, the GOP leader in the polls right now, wanted to write discrimination directly into the Constitution when it comes to marriage. And Rick Santorum, as anyone from Pennsylvania will attest, is one of the most adversarial critics of LGBT rights in politics today, having compared same-sex marriage rights to beastiality. Voting for either of these guys would be a stretch for anyone looking out for the future of gay rights.

The marriage equality debate in New York could end up influencing the gay vote, as well. Legalizing marriage (or not) will predictably have a lot to do with whether gays and lesbians not only support the incumbent president, but also whether they’ll open their wallets. Even though the president has little to do with what the legislators in New York decide (as early as today) the success of same-sex marriage rights would shine a positive light on his administration. New York also has the possibility of influencing other marriage equality debates across the country (if it passes, Pennsylvania will be surrounded by states including New Jersey and Delaware that support some form of marriage or civil unions for LGBT couples).

In a practical way, one would like to think supporting Obama for a second term would be a no-brainer for gays and lesbians compared to the GOP candidates. He’s a Democrat. He’s supported LGBT-friendly initiatives. And he’s not totally adverse to gay marriage. But LGBT voters, like any voting block, are much more complex – and that’s a good thing. It shows that rather than simply being a “community,” gay and lesbian voters are a community of individuals with a vast network of concerns ranging from discrimination protection, adoption rights and marriage to the economy, education and AIDS advocacy with just as many opinions about how to address them.

So the big question in the 2012 election won’t be whether gays support Obama as much as will Obama truly support the gays. That, voters, will make all the difference.