Government as Lagging Indicator and Obama's Invocation of Gay History

President Obama continues the government trend of "pioneering" statements that follow the polls


President Barack Obama mentioned that gay people existed in his inauguration speech on Monday and tossed out a reference to Stonewall (a gay bar in Manhattan that become a historical flashpoint in the late '60s when riots followed a police raid) in the same breath as Seneca Falls and Selma. He mentioned support for gay marriage recognition, a position he "evolved" into all of last summer:

Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. 

It turns out this is the first time a president has acknowledged gay people in an inaugural speech, so it caused a bit of a stir among the pundits and gay blogosphere.

I have an extremely strong bias against inaugural spectacles. I really, truly cannot stand them. Yes, Obama's inauguration appeared to be a coronation, but they always do. This one wasn't really any different. Folks I've noticed who obsess over the spectacle of the inauguration are inevitably also the same folks who obsess over any ostentatious British display involving their royal family. I managed to endure the president's speech, Kelly Clarkson's horrible rendition of "My Country Tis of Thee," and then zoned out during openly gay Latino poet Richard Blanco's reading not long after he made a reference to wind power in his poem. I turned the whole thing off around the time Chuck Schumer was describing the bipartisan committee that arranged their stupid lunch.

So anyway, my point – and I do have one – is that my immediate response to the president actually mentioning gay people was to barely notice it. It was a political "shout-out," the equivalent of a singer name-checking the city he or she is in during a tour.

To the extent that the president's inclusion is a pioneering moment, it's a cultural achievement by just about everybody but Obama, and a stellar example of how government ultimately doesn't lead – it follows. Obama's comments are safe now – his position is disputed, but can no longer be considered controversial. Andrew Sullivan makes some important observations to that effect (while at the same time engaging in his typical worship of the man):

Obama included these references rightly in the context of other struggles. This is not about identity politics but human and civic equality that goes far beyond the gay experience. But sometimes you have to remember how far we have come, with this man pushed relentlessly forward by our pressure and by our conversations with each other.

I'm not so sure it's not about identity politics. People have responded emotionally, viscerally when the president mentioned their particular identity-based problems. Yet Obama did not give any sort of indication his administration will actually engage in any sort of behavior to resolve this inequality he fully observes. His speech certainly wasn't about any substantive policy measures. Ask an immigrant how he or she feels about Obama talking about their struggles given his administration's actual treatment of them for the past four years.

In any event, Obama's poll-endorsed support of the gay marriage issue makes the lazy collectivism in his speech all the more annoying. There was no "collective action" on improving the lot of gays and lesbians in America any more than there was for blacks or women. It was a long slog where the citizens often had to fight their own government in order to achieve any sort of advancement in liberty. The government has almost always been the barrier, and it was inevitably the collective will of the majority who rigged the system against others. The advancement of liberty in the United States is ultimately about a minority convincing the majority to convince the government to stop doing something awful to the minority, not a fantasy of a unified people working together.