Harvey Milk poses in front of his camera shop in San Francisco in this Nov. 9, 1977 photo.
Tuesday, May 22, is Harvey Milk Day, commemorating birth of the openly gay city supervisor who was assassinated (along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone) by a fellow council member in 1978. As the first openly gay elected official in the nation, Milk has become an icon and martyr for the gay community.
Milk famously said to his gay and lesbian constituents, “Coming out is the most political thing you can do.” Once they actually know us, they won’t vote against us, he concluded. Less than forty years later, the president of the United States cites his experience of knowing and respecting gay and lesbian couples, both civilian and military, as what helped him evolve to a position of support for gay marriage.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of President Obama’s declaration of his support for marriage equality. For gay and lesbian people of a certain age (I become Medicare eligible in a week!), we never thought we would live to see a sitting president president of the United States mention the topic of marriage equality for gay or lesbian couples – much less offer his support under the Constitution for our equal right to marry the person we love. It is a stunning milestone on the road to full and equal civil rights for America’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens.
Much has been made of the president’s own admission that his views on marriage equality have been “evolving.” But this should come as no surprise to anyone who is honest about the process of change in attitude about such a social issue. As more and more men and women–and youth–come out, attitudes in the general public toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are changing. This is because when one actually knows someone gay, they are less willing to believe the derogatory things said about them, now understanding that such criticisms are untrue. Yes, the president, along with the rest of American society, has been “evolving.”
Still, there is no way to understate the power and influence of such a personal evolution being articulated by the president of the United States. I don’t for a minute believe that he was “forced” into expressing his evolved view by expressions of support of marriage equality by the vice president and other members of his cabinet. And the president told us how that evolution happened: knowing and respecting his own gay and lesbian staff members and military personnel who are faithfully loving their partners and responsibly raising families, exhibiting the best of family values.
One thing is surprising: As important as it is for the president to express his support for marriage equality, it may turn out to be equally as important that that support came from a president who is also an African-American. Acceptance of same-gender sexual orientation has been an uphill struggle in some communities of color. It’s tough enough being on the receiving end of racial discrimination and hatred, without adding homophobic prejudice, mistreatment and hatred. African-Americans who are religious tend toward the conservative, evangelical expressions of Christianity which are opposed to any change to the traditional condemnation of homosexuality.
However, in the ten days following the president’s announcement, it appears that attitudes in the African-American community have been evolving too. According to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll (since the president’s announcement), “Just 41 percent of African-Americans supported gay marriage in ABC/Post polls in mid-2011 and early 2012. Yet 54 percent express a favorable view of his position on the issue in this poll – suggesting that, for some, allegiance to Obama may have prompted a rethink on the issue itself.” Then several big names in the hip hop/entertainment world–Jay Z and Will Smith among them–added their support. African-American leaders have been quietly doing some evolution of their own, and last week, the NAACP announced its unequivocal support for marriage equality. Perhaps it was the president’s announcement that gave them the cover they needed to announce how their own attitudes have evolved, or perhaps it was just time. Either way, welcome!
Elected officials, including the president, can either merely try to manage the situations with which they are presented, calculating what is politically expedient, or they can lead. On this issue, President Obama has chosen to lead. Wherever Harvey Milk is, I think he must be smiling.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.