Friday, 19 June 2009

Equal but different is not equal at all

At last.
President Obama signed a memorandum extending to same-sex domestic partners of federal employees some of the rights enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts.
At last.

Still, this is no cause for celebration. This is basic stuff we are talking about. And although we are all happy this has finally happened, I can't help but be bothered by the fact that this simple memo is the result of months of study into how to extend benefits for same-sex couples without upsetting the conservative right and without violating the Defense of Marriage Act, an Act the Obama administration has vowed to scrap yet keeps defending.
So this memo, important as it is, is nowhere near enough if you are committed to ending the inequality marginalising same-sex couples. But it is too much if you care about not offending the conservative right.
There is no middle ground here and Obama is rapidly discovering this much to his dismay.

'This is only one step' said Obama in a conciliatory tone.
But that was a step too far for the conservarive right while pro-gay rights communities were left wondering when he's going to take the next step.
Obama has paid lip-service to the gay rights agenda but supporters feel he is not going fast enough or far enough. The conservative right, on the other hand, think he has already gone too far too fast.
From an electoral perspective, Obama needs to get this balance right. The gay community is a big chunk of votes he can't afford to lose but America's conservative heartland represents more votes still. From an electoral perspective, he needs to placate both sides, a mathematical impossibility as one side wants all rights to apply regardless of sexuality and the other, well, doesn't. So his only option is to anger both sides, a little but not too much. A thankless task if there ever was one.

All this considered, I still don't think that giving same-sex domestic partners access to healthcare is a breakthrough: it's a much-needed, long-overdue 'fix' to an unfair practice that discriminates and excludes people just because of how they find happiness and who they chose to love.
So the question, really, is 'now what?'

Obama has appointed openly gay individuals to prominent positions thus angering the right – name one thing that doesn't anger the right other than bible study – but beyond that, this is the first nod towards gay rights since he took office five months ago. Yes yes I know he has wars to finish and a financial crisis to manage but, to be honest, if he can't multi-task he's in the wrong job.

You wanna call a spade a spade?
In America, land of freedom and opportunity, some animals are more equal than others. So when a young black Democrat was elected to the supreme office, the entire world thought: here comes the end of 'equal but different' – segregation policies in all but name. But five months on, we are still waiting. What is he waiting for? The tide is already turning. Six states have legalised same-sex marriage. But, wait for it, Obama opposes that on religious grounds.

And that's where Barack lost me. Not that he cares. But he lost me.
Because that is a hypocritical narrow-minded rejection of difference (for political gain or out of personal cowardice and I don't know what's worse) and this is why:
- Christianity is a faith system based on love. Love for God and love for each other. No true Christian rejects love, wherever it is found, whatever form it may take, even if it is love you do not wish for yourself.

- Marriage is a civil bond that may or may not be sanctified by a religious ceremony. It is a contract allowing partners who spend their lives together to share the property they amass together, to make decisions regarding each other's health when the time comes, to be a unit in the eyes of the law. Religion comes into it if the couple feel it should and to reject a couple's legal right to marry on religious grounds is misguided and hypocritical.

- A same sex couple taking vows of fidelity and love hurts absolutely nobody. It takes away nothing from any other group. Even if you don't think that their love and partnership makes the world a better place, you cannot point to a single thing you lose through their union. If you don't like what you see, look away. Human and civil rights are granted on grounds of humanity and citizenship and cannot be legitimately withheld because you do not like the way people choose to exercise them.

And this is not about sexuality as such. This is about the sort of world you want to live in. And here is my problem: I think there should be anti-gun laws because people with guns can hurt others. I don't object to anti-smoking laws in public places on the same grounds but think that laws banning people from smoking in their own cars is penalizing a lifestyle choice and that's not how we do business in a liberal society. And that's the crux of the matter. My rights can only legitimately be curtailed in order to safeguard other people's rights. Not on grounds of the tastes and preferences of those in power. Objecting to gay marriage on religious or moral grounds, to me, translates to 'you can't have it cos I don't like it and don't want it for myself'.

So the time has come to stand up for what we believe in and that does not entail answering the question 'do you think gay servicemen and women should have the same right as civil servants not in uniform' (which they should); the question is 'do you want to live in a world where some animals are more equal than others'?

Obama promised to reverse the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act yet only last week the Justice Department filed a legal brief opposing a challenge to said Act (apparently administrations defend laws they oppose as a matter of course, according to Obama's press secretary) using unnecessarily strong language. If this was an attempt at conciliation, it failed. Gay groups are offended, rights activists are outraged while the right is not placated by the brief and finds Obama's memo a violation of the rule of law and the Defense of Marriage Act.

So what will it be Barack?
This war won't be won with token gestures and small concessions. While same-sex couples live in the margins because their rights are denied by a majority that doesn't care about what doesn't concern them, the right consider tiny redresses to the massive rights imbalance 'aggressive' and 'radical'.
Tony Perkins, President of the conservative Family Research Council, went as far as to speak of the homosexuals' extreme demands.
What would those be, I wonder?
The right for a couple to stay together when one partner is posted abroad? The right to take compassionate leave when your life partner is sick and needs you by their side? The right to live in dignity and peace? The right to publicly love and protect your chosen partner?

Extreme indeed.
As extreme as black kids going to school and women getting jobs. As extreme as black women voting and taking the bar exam.

The point is, fairness is not a popularity contest.
Equality is universal or it is not at all. Rights are universal or they are a sham.
That's why the world looked on in hope when a black man became President of the US. Because he didn't need to have some things explained to him. He didn't need to be told discrimination is criminal and 'equal but different' is an insult and a lie. And because he didn't need to have any of this explained to him, we expect him to stand up to be counted when fairness is at stake.

So Mr Obama, on the question of gay rights what we want from you is to eliminate the very phrase. We want equality for individuals to completely eclipse the need to even talk of gay rights. Because people who happen to be gay will have the same rights as people who happen to be straight.

Equality cannot be had by degrees. You are either equal or you are not.
So what will it be?


  1. First of all, nice post. Keep them coming!

    As you say, it's a good first step. Unfortunately it will not be fixed overnight, and it's difficult to find the "right" speed for change. I value a second Obama term more than an overnight equality bill, that (1) is never going to be ratified, and (2) is going to be revoked when Pat Robertson gets elected next term because of backlash. Unfortunately, what usually happens in social change is that from the moment you can dream your ideal society until it can be achieved, it's a life-time, if at all. We won't live to see it, but we can help reach it, one step at a time.

  2. Ο Ομπάμα είναι λογικό για μένα να δυσαρεστήσει και να απογοητεύσει πολλούς. γιατί; επειδή απίστευτα πολλές ελπίδες και όνειρα είχαν συσσωρευτεί από την αρχή πάνω του. σίγουρα δεν μπορεί να τους ικανοποιήσει όλους. κάποιοι θα δυσαρεστηθούν. δεύτερο δεν κυβερνά μόνος του, αλλά εχει ένα κάρο "συμβούλους" και δε συμμαζεύεται, που έχουν δικές τους ατζέντες και θέματα να προωθήσουν.

    όλα όσα λες για τα δικαιωματα των γκεη είναι απολύτως λογικά και θα έπρεπε να μπορεί ο καθένας να κανει τις επιλογές του. από τη στιγμή που αυτες οι επιλογες δεν ενοχλουν κανενα γιατι να μην προσφερονται σε ολους τα ιδια δικαιωματα οπως όλοι εχουν τις ιδιες υποχρεωσεις;

    ολα αυτα ομως σε μια ιδανικη κοινωνια..

    στις κοινωνιες που ζουμε υπαρχει καταπιεση, ρατσισμος, ξενοφοβια, μισος, καταπιεση από τους λιγους και δυνατούς στους πολλους και αδυνατους κτλ. έτσι ειναι οι κοινωνιες μας ΟΛΕΣ, συμπεριλαμβανομενης της αμερικανικης φυσικα.

    αλλωστε οπως ξερουμε η δημοκρατια και η δικτατορια δεν απεχουν και πολυ. σε καποια θεματα οι κοινωνιες λειτουργουν δικτατορικα και οχι δημοκρατικα, δυστυχώς και δεν λαμβανουν υποψη κανενα παρα τους έχοντες και κατεχοντες (χρηματα, συμφέροντα κτλ)

  3. @ Polyvios – thank you very much. I will keep the posts coming if you keep the comments coming, it's all about the conversation!

    I totally agree with you on the counter-productiveness of Obama colliding head-on with the establishment over a law that would never pass. And the electoral calculations in this are very important because Obama is no good to any of us if he doesn't get re-elected.

    And I also agree that attitudes take a long time to change. And even after yonks and yonks you don't convert everyone, you just move the baseline. So racism sadly still exists but the legal framework put in place since the civil rights movement means that the racists' opinions are just that: opinions. The change from the majority of society accepting the marginalisation of blacks as a given fact to the majority accepting blacks as equal partners in society was slow and it remains incomplete. But the laws have changed so the entire discourse has moved and extreme behaviours are eliminated or at least punished - even if extreme opinions still exist.

    Social change is one thing. Legal frameworks another. And the question is: what do you expect politicians to achieve. What I want from them is swift and decisive policy change. Osmosis and social change cannot be legislated. But societies can be led and the problem about half-way house legislation is that it is not giving a decisive message saying 'we are going all the way with this one, however long it takes'.
    I guess that's what I'm hoping I'll get from Obama. A clear message that we are in this for the duration, however long it takes.

    @ Dorothea – καλώς την!
    Δε διαφωνώ ότι Ο Obama θα απογοητεύσει πολλούς λόγω απίστευτων ονείρων εξαρχής. Μάλιστα το πρώτο μου post για τον Obama ήταν ακριβώς αυτό: ότι τώρα εμείς που είμαστε μαζί του πρέπει να θυμόμαστε ότι είναι άνθρωπος και όχι νεράιδα με μαγικό ραβδάκι. Η δυσκολία είναι ότι κάθε Αμερικανος πρόεδρος στο πρώτο term έχει ουσιαστικά 18 μήνες διακυβέρνησης όλους κι όλους πριν αρχίσει να αφιερώνει τον περισσότερο του χρόνο στην επανεκλογή του. Και αυτοί οι 18 μήνες είναι ένας καλός χρόνος να επιβάλλει την agenda του επί αυτές των συμβουλων και των λοιπών παρατρεχάμενων.

    Είναι επίσης αλήθεια ότι κάθε πρόεδρος είναι πιο πιθανό να αφήσει τις πιο τολμηρές μεταρρυθμίσεις για το δεύτερο term – για ευνόητους λόγους!

    Δυστυχώς συμφωνώ ότι οι κοινωνίες μας (όλες ανεξαιρέτως) δεν στερούνται ρατσισμού, μισογυνισμού, ομοφωνίας και άλλων παθήσεων! Αυτό είναι γεγονός. Αλλα αρνούμαι να το δεχτώ ως δεδομένο. Ελπίζουμε στην αλλαγή άρα δε δεχόμαστε τα χαλια μας ως αναπόφευκτα. Βεβαια θα μου πεις ότι η ελπίδα και η αφέλεια είναι πρώτα ξαδέρφια. Και θα έχεις και δίκιο. Αλλα dum spiro spero.

  4. Με πλήγωσες...
    Κι εγώ πίστευα πως μόνο οι made in greece ελπίδες είναι πρωτοξαδέρφες με την αφέλεια.

    Για τα υπόλοιπα όλα είναι θέμα σύγκρισης. Όσες κι αν είναι οι αποτυχίες του "νέου θεού", όσο κι διαψεύσει προσδοκίες, θέλω να ελπίζω ότι ο τελικός απολογισμός θα είναι συν, σε σχέση με τους προκατόχους τους.
    Μπορεί πάλι να είμαι κι αφελής. Θα δείξει.

    Χαιρετισμούς από την πιο ηλιόλουστη και την πιο σκοτεινή πατρίδα.

  5. @ Φοράδα – αχ φοραδίτσα μου δεν ήθελα να σε πληγώσω αλλα και πάλι να σου πω ψέματα?

    Δυστυχώς ανά τω κόσμω η ελπίδα και η αφέλεια συμβαδίζουν. Αλλα αυτό δεν είναι απαραίτητα κακό. Τουλάχιστον ο αφελής εξακολουθεί να πιστεύει ότι η αλλαγή και η βελτίωση είναι εφικτές. Ενώ ο ρεαλιστής συνήθως σου λέει να ρουφήξεις το αβγό σου η να ψιλό-κόψεις το proverbial τουμπεκί...

    Κατά τα αλλα μαζί σου. Ο Obama θα είναι καλύτερος από τον Bush. Είναι επιστημονικά αδύνατον να είναι χειρότερος. Βεβαια η γιαγιά μου που ήταν σοφή έλεγε 'μεγάλη μπουκιά φάε, μεγάλο λόγο μην πεις' οποτε άσε και θα δούμε...

    ’Aντε, φιλια από το ομιχλώδες Λονδίνο.
    Κανε μια βουτιά και για μένα...

  6. Καλημέρα Lalu,

    για πέρασε να παραλάβεις το βραβείο σου ;)

  7. I agree about the clear message necessity. What I meant was that what you call "a clear message" (more clear than this law) might create unpleasant side-effects, at this time. I think there is already a message in "gay federal employees should get such and such rights that heteros have." The message I got is "we should legislate equal benefits everywhere, and persuade the individual states to do the same, let's start by example, with federal employees."

    I still think a more clear message (or a "bigger step" if you want) will come in the future, and in the mean time it doesn't hurt to improve some people's situation. A nice next step (and very clear message) for me would be to scrap the "don't ask don't tell" stupidity in the army. Maybe that's best done in 4 years, as you said.

  8. @ Fri – Ευχαριστώ για το βραβείο!!
    Η απονομή των δικών μου έρχεται οσονούπω!

    @ Polyvios – I agree both on that pushing for the legislation now would create unpleasantness and that this piece of legislation is important because it leads by example. But only if more legislation like it is passed. If this is it for the next few months then the message sent changes from 'we are determined to do this slowly but surely' to 'we made a token gesture but caved under the pressure from the right'. So follow-up is key. And culling the don't ask don't tell' crap in the army would make an excellent next step.

    What I'm worried about is how long it will be before we don't need to be satisfied with small steps any more.
    But a girl can dream...