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Change Happens One To One

May 10, 2012

I want to elaborate on Michael Tomasky’s excellent post, “The Movement Made Him Do It”, about how we as a country arrived at the point where a sitting president (and one who’s running for re-election) came “out” in support of same-sex marriage.

“Franklin Roosevelt had the famous phrase: “Make me do it.” He was speaking to activists for the labor movement or some other faction fighting for a slice of the pie, and he was saying to them, don’t expect me to back you out of the kindess of my heart, even if in my heart I agree with you. This is politics, and you have to create the conditions that make it possible for me to support your cause. And that’s what the LGBT movement did.”

The gay rights movement and the immigrant rights movement have been the two factions on the left that have most consistently worked an “inside-outside” game during Obama’s presidency:  using their existing organizations, networks and relationships to advance their agenda in Washington, while also maintaining their ability and willingness to organize hundreds of thousands of their leaders and followers to pressure Obama and his administration to act on their demands.

But there’s a broader and more intimate aspect of politics at work here as well, and President Obama referred to it repeatedly in his interview yesterday with ABC News’ Robin Roberts:

“When I think about– members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together…”

“…when I meet gay and lesbian couples, when I meet same-sex couples, and I see– how caring they are, how much love they have in their hearts– how they’re takin’ care of their kids. When I hear from them the pain they feel that somehow they are still considered– less than full citizens when it comes to– their legal rights– then– for me, I think it– it just has tipped the scales in that direction. “

“You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I– you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin’ around the dinner table. And we’ve been talkin’ and– about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would– it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And– and frankly– that’s the kind of thing that prompts– a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated– differently, when it comes to– the eyes of the law.”

Change happens one to one.  When an issue becomes real in one’s life, when it becomes immediate, specific, definable in human terms—that’s when change can begin to happen.  When, as Obama said, your children ask questions that make you uncomfortable…it’s not a guarantee of change, but it is profoundly agitational—which is a necessary precursor to change.

That’s why it’s hard to overestimate (heck, it’s hard to estimate it at all) the impact and importance of millions of gays and lesbians coming out of the closet over the last 40 or so years.  It took (and takes) enormous personal courage.  It means risking the loss of some of one’s closest and most important relationships.  It means the additional risk of becoming the object of overt discrimination and prejudice.

But without that experience of someone coming out of the closet and as a result, all of their friends, family, neighbors, classmates and colleagues having to reckon—one to one—with the fact that she’s a lesbian, that he’s gay…without that experience multiplied millions of times over the past 4 decades, I very much doubt Obama (or any president) would have made the statement he made yesterday.

From → History, Politics

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