After affixing his signature to the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which barred openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, President Obama admitted that he still opposes same-sex marriages. Saying that his “feelings (about the issue) are constantly evolving,” the president admitted this apparent contradiction in his convictions, remarking that he struggled with the duality in his positions.
Some will certainly see President Obama not as struggling, but as hypocritical. They will challenge his words about evolving feelings as evasive psychobabble designed to mollify both sides in the nation’s ongoing debate about same-sex marriage. They would be wrong.
After 10 long years of debate, something amazing happened this week. Not only was DADT consigned to the dustbin of history, it was done by a nation the vast majority of whose citizens were happy to see it go. Even the majority of those on active military duty say that they are pleased with the repeal of DADT.
Those were not the percentages 10 years ago, or even five years ago. Those numbers reflect a long process of struggling with complex and competing convictions, a struggle in which hundreds of millions of American participated. And allowing that process to unfold, to evolve, was critical to its success.
Along the way to this new consensus about the inappropriateness of DADT, many people held on to contradictory views about gay people, military service and the meaning of equal rights for all Americans. Like the president, Americans’ thinking needed time to evolve, to grow naturally to where it is now. And because that was the process we followed, we not only have a better policy this week than last, we stand largely united behind it.
I suspect that is exactly what will happen with same-sex marriage – as long as ideological purists don’t force a confrontation which short-circuits people’s intellectual-ethical-moral-spiritual evolutionary processes. The history of this nation is one of expanding options and possibilities for all people, so while nobody can know for sure, that is likely to be the case with same-sex marriage. The only real question is how we get there.
Will we arrive at some new legal reality, battered and bruised by yet further needless battles in the culture wars? Or, taking a lead from the president, could we allow ourselves the inconsistencies and dualities which make up all of our lives to slowly evolve to more coherent and consistent conclusions?
To struggle respectfully and to evolve over time, that is how the most durable cultural shifts occur, at least the most beneficial ones. I appreciate that the approach I am describing does not come cheap. Generations of servicemen and servicewomen were hurt by our previous approach to gay and lesbian members of the military. Had the change occurred sooner, some portion of them would have been spared.
I also know that for hundreds of thousands of gay men and women, denying them a marriage is a source of incredible pain. So I do not advocate for evolution over revolution casually. But revolution also creates enormous pain and suffering. It too causes casualties, and simply because I feel sure about which side is right, I dare not take those casualties any more lightly.
Cultures evolve. Attitudes toward marriage evolve. Religion and their attitudes to marriage also evolve. Uncertain about these three claims? Imagine suggesting to someone 500 years ago that all people were equal, regardless of race? Imagine suggesting to the most pious of Christian or Jewish men 1000 years ago that they limit themselves to one wife? I could go on, but you get the point.
There is no obviously and clearly correct way to define family or marriage, even for the most culturally conservative of traditions. There is however a way of allowing those traditions the time and space to figure out how to move forward without experiencing it as betrayal of their past. And while 500 or 1000 years is too slow, it seems that we learned this week that 10 years may be just about right.
I am proud of the president for sharing the complexity of his convictions, for reminding us that nuance is not the same as lack of commitment, and for challenging us all to wrestle with the conclusions upon which we base our own lives, when those same convictions may be limiting or actually harming the lives of others. Wherever that process leads us tomorrow, it will be better than today and we will be able to get there together. Not a bad thing for either a president or a nation to celebrate.