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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Heroes We Wish They Were: Obama, Warren, and Homophobia

I haven't been happy with all of Obama's cabinet picks but this week I was basking in the afterglow of having finally finished his first memoir, Dreams From My Father, and I was full of hope for our new president. He is an impressive writer and speaker, and his book is full of inspirational and reflective prose. He is brilliant, insightful, well-educated, and progressive on many issues. He may be the smartest president we have ever had and he certainly appears to be the most loving and peaceful leader we have had in a very long time. I was so busy patting myself on the back for campaigning for this remarkable man, I never saw Rick Warren coming.

Like many of his supporters, I am still reeling from Obama's decision to have an explicitly anti-gay pastor perform the invocation at his inauguration. 

Mr Obama, how did this happen?

I like the idea of a "team of rivals."  As a mixed person, I understand his desire to bring people together across difference. As a scholar, artist, and activist who has devoted my life and my career to teaching people to respect one another and to see shared humanity where  in the past they have only seen difference, I can well appreciate the challenges involved in trying to bring people of dissimilar views into dialogue. But I don't think hate is something we can agree to disagree on. 

Rick Warren has spoken out openly against gay marriage. Nothing spectacular about that. Everyone seems to be jumping on the anti-gay marriage bandwagon these days, but Warren actually compared gay marriage to pedophilia and incest. That constitutes more than a mere difference of opinion. It is bigotry. 

I think we need to draw a line when it comes to bigoted language. Why would Obama want such a person to represent him? I thought his message was all about hope and love and peace?

If Bush picked such a pastor gay people would not be up in arms about it. But it breaks our hearts when the candidate we thought was running on a platform of social justice decides to align himself with a person who speaks in dehumanizing ways about gay people.

Of course our sense of betrayal is bigger than Obama. It has to do with the expectations we tend to have for the rare political leader who seems to be ahead of his or her times. We think if a leader is enlightened on one issue then she ought to be enlightened on all the important issues. It shocks our sensibilities when we discover that they sympathize with oppressors of any kind. It eats away at our hope and adds to our mounting despair when we must consider the possibility that despite our patience, our struggle, and our suffering, we still cannot count on even the most forward-thinking of our leaders to stand up on our behalf, to cry injustice, to protect us from the hate-mongers as part of their larger campaigns to fight injustice.

We want Obama to be our King, our Kennedy, our Gandhi,.. our hero perhaps. We want him to fight for us, to recognize our rights, to include us finally in the panoply of humanity. Do we want too much?

After all, Gandhi was not the hero we thought he was when it came to women. He fought for the rights of men, not of humans. He treated his male servants better than he treated his wife and other women in his household. He argued in his autobiography that Hindu women were  made for serving men, that they had no objections to devoting their lives to the desires and care of men. He did not include women in his arguments for the rights of workers. His work against injustice did not include the injustices suffered by women.

Such revelations disappoint us when we discover them because great people like Gandhi, like King, like Obama perhaps, represent to us the existence, how ever rare, of leaders who can see beyond their times, men or women who are always somehow on the right side of history, who manage to choose always what is right over what is popular or expedient.

When Loving vs. Virginia was decided by the Supreme Court in 1967, 70% of the population of the United States were opposed to the legalization of interracial marriage (20% still do) but legalizing it was the right thing to do. In 1863, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation the vast majority of the US population was opposed to freeing the slaves but it was the right thing to do.  In the 19th century when numerous women were granted the right to own property for the first time, it was done by judges in courts all over the country while the majority of US voters (suffrage was limited to men) were opposed to an expansion of rights for women. It was not popular but it was the right thing to do.

It is just a matter of time before gay Americans are granted all the same rights of citizenship that non-gay Americans currently enjoy. Heterosexuals engage in sex acts and romantic alliances that are currently more popular than queer relationships  but that doesn't make them more right. 

Homophobia is not right and history will redeem us.  But in the mean time, it is disappointing in the extreme that the man we elected to be our president does not yet recognize our rights. It is unfortunate  to discover that he fights bigotry in all its other forms but supports bigotry when it is aimed at gays and lesbians.

Gay and Lesbian Americans do not simply have a different view than homophobes. We do not, as Obama, has recommended, need to "agree to disagree" with anti-gay activists like Warren. Gay people and anti-gay people do not have a difference of opinion. They have a difference of power. The oppressed never just disagree with their oppressors. They are victimized by their oppressor's views.  And we know that Frederick Douglas was right when he proclaimed so many years ago that, "power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will." We are demanding an end to heterosexist oppression.

Those who claim to fight for justice cannot draw the line at gay rights, claiming to support the rights of workers, poor people, women, people of color, the disabled,  old people, and immigrants, but still refusing to fight for the rights of queers. As King put it, "An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Mr Obama, as MY president, I hope you realize this sooner rather than later.

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