Not so long ago, a presidential candidate’s endorsement of marriage between people of the same sex would have been political suicide. The very concept was unimaginable in the mainstream of American society.
Things obviously are changing. The Associated Press reported a new poll by the Pew Research Center found President Obama’s support for gay marriage had no effect on the opinion half of the public holds about him. About a fourth of the people said they felt less favorably toward him while 19 percent reported more favorable feelings.
The survey further accentuated the extent to which this has become a generational issue. While 42 percent of people over 65 said they had a lower opinion of Obama because of his stand, 62 percent of those between 18 and 29 said their opinions were unchanged. The gap has been compared to that between young and old people on interracial marriage, now widely accepted except among those who grew up in the era of racial segregation.
But even though attitudes are evolving, this remains treacherous political ground which candidates on both sides must tread carefully. Obama knew his position was risky and he took care in a fundraiser Monday to frame it as one that would strengthen families by encouraging long-term marital commitments rather than sexual promiscuity.
For people of faith – especially those inclined to literal interpretation of scripture – it remains a torturous dilemma. Their Bible tells them quite directly that homosexuality is an “abomination.” However, most people now see sexual orientation as an inborn trait, something over which individuals have no control. A sense of fairness leads them to conclude certain biblical admonitions merely reflect ancient biases, thus are out of step with present-day standards. Fundamentalists resist change, fearful that if they dismiss one rule of conduct as irrelevant, others would tumble like dominoes.
Politically, the president may be banking on voters in more urbanized parts of the nation to agree with his progressive philosophy. He lost Kentucky in 2008 and probably does not expect to prevail here in 2012. The Kentucky Constitution recognizes only marriage between one man and one woman and state law declares void same-sex marriages occurring in other jurisdictions.
It might be simpler if marriage were strictly a religious institution allowing different sects to abide by different rules, but it’s not. Government is inextricably involved in the process through laws and regulations that establish special treatment for married couples in matters of taxation, inheritance, public benefits, property ownership and visitation rights in the event of a partner’s hospitalization. If marriage is not redefined, same-sex couples would still want some alternative contract to set the terms for stable relationships.
These complications were easier to overlook before gays started coming out of the closet during the sexual revolution. In the ongoing evolution since the revolution, families can no longer assume unwed sons and daughters are merely waiting to find the “right” mate of the opposite sex. Head to head with a discomfiting reality, some now advocate legal measures to normalize the unconventional partnerships that are suddenly landing on their doorsteps.
When traditional families have to accept compromises they never really wanted, politicians face hard choices of their own.