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Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

On June 1st,President Barack Obama proclaimed June 2009 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month and called “upon the people of the United States to turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists.” If President Obama expected to be showered in lavender love in return for this proclamation, he was sorely disappointed. During June, grumbling about the Obama administration’s public stance on such issues as gays in the military, same-sex marriage, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) reached a crescendo. Candidate Obama had expressed his determination to overturn the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy and DOMA; now-President Obama is taking a decidedly more muted tack—in the name of pragmatism. At a White House reception for invited gay and lesbian leaders on June 30th, with wife Michelle prominently at his side, the President implicitly acknowledged the slow pace of change (critics might say the no-pace of change) and counseled patience: “I know that many in this room don’t believe progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It’s not for me to tell you to be patient any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half-century ago. We’ve been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.”

The timing of the reception was historically resonant, coming just two days after the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion. “Stonewall” began on June 28, 1969, when patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, upset by constant police harassment, fought back and resisted arrest. Their resistance is commonly set down as the beginning of the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement in the US. As numerous historians of lesbian and gay history have argued, this way of narrating lesbian and gay history leaves out of view the important activist efforts—of groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis—that preceded the events at the Stonewall Inn. This is not a minor historical quibble: Stonewall as origin tale forgets that social change happens over time, sometimes over a long time. If this is what President Obama means when he counsels his gay and lesbian critics to be “patient,” then we are sympathetic to this long view of what it means to build and sustain a social movement. But it is not clear that this is what the President had in mind with his call for “patience.”

Instead, Obama was asking for time so that Congress could take the lead on gay issues like DADT and DOMA. Obama’s reticence to speak out for gay rights, let alone show leadership on them, is all the more glaring in light of his much-vaunted ability to redefine the terms of public debate on a number of other divisive issues. For example, his promotion of “abortion reduction” has been widely hailed for the way it eschews the polar oppositions “pro-choice” and “pro-life” to produce a new political center. This new political center has seemed to come at the cost of Obama’s retreat from his previous support—in the Senate and on the campaign trail—for the “Freedom of Choice Act.”  When it comes to sexual freedom, the center does not seem to hold much promise at all, neither for a broad array of reproductive rights nor for LGBT rights. What makes gender and sexuality, but especially homosexuality, such a stumbling block for this otherwise rhetorically and strategically nimble politician?  As Hendrik Hertzberg put the matter in a recent New Yorker column, “where gays are concerned [Obama’s] fine-tuned ear for the emotional resonance of his actions has an alloy of tin.”

As we argue in a forthcoming article in Social Research, this strange hesitation is due less to some personal failing on Obama’s part than to the force of Christian secularism in US. How so?  Not only does it seem pragmatically difficult for the Obama administration to address an issue like gay marriage, which remains a rallying cry for religious conservatives even as it may be less so for many other Americans, Obama’s commitment to marriage as between “one man and one woman” is in line with both his stated personal religious commitment and his efforts to promote a new culture of responsibility—from corporate executives to unmarried fathers—as part of the answer to the country’s economic problems. This language of “responsibility” (variants of which he used fourteen times in his first address to Congress) is not itself directly religious. It is, however, deeply indebted to a Christian, and specifically Protestant, understanding of the individual’s role in society. This version of responsibility connects secularism to Christianity even for those who understand themselves to be fully secular, and it does so by using gender and sexuality as sites of “moral” suture between individuals and the state. Simultaneously, Christian secularism links some conservative religious constituencies to broader secular forces such as the economic neoliberalism of the last thirty years, the devastating effects of which Obama is so desperately trying to manage. The secular parts of this equation are crucial to recognize, because focusing on religion alone not only occludes the many religious people who are themselves gay or supporters of gay rights, it also perpetuates the idea that religion is “the” problem blocking gay rights and sexual freedom more generally.

This notion—that religion and sexuality are somehow in opposition—is one of the few beliefs shared by opponents and supporters of gay rights. Yet it has significant policy implications, particularly in recent moves to enact far-reaching “religious exemptions” as a condition of passing state laws permitting same-sex marriage. In New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch threatened to veto same-sex marriage unless state legislators also passed a bill framed as “protecting” religion and extending “religious liberty,” but that in practice exempts religious organizations and their employees from otherwise applicable state anti-discrimination laws. (Legal scholar Nan Hunter has predicted that the New Hampshire language could become a model for same-sex marriage laws nationally.)

In our 2003 book, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Freedom, we offer an extensive argument that religious freedom and sexual freedom are actually interdependent rather than oppositional. Unfortunately, the impact of “religious exemptions” like those included in the New Hampshire law is to codify a narrow version of religious freedom in which religious liberty and sexual freedom can only be seen as mutually exclusive. This is not just a loss for sexual freedom; it also significantly narrows the parameters of religious freedom offered by the US Constitution.

If there is a “religion problem” posed by gay marriage, it is not that some religious organizations might be “forced” to provide secular benefits to same-sex couples, such as healthcare or equal access to residential housing; it is rather the entanglement of the state with the business of any couple’s religious marriage. The problem here is that the state legitimates religious marriages, performed by members of the clergy, rather than only civil unions performed by representatives of the state, thus entangling, rather than separating, state and religious practice. When such entanglements are maintained in law, religious practice is not “protected” from the state any more than citizens are “protected” from the imposition of religious convictions they do not share. New Hampshire and other states could actually “protect” both religious practice and those who are not religious (or who are differently religious) by providing civil unions on the basis of equality and letting religious bodies provide for religious marriages. No secular benefits would then flow from religious marriage, and the secular benefits that follow on civil unions would be separated from religious debates over homosexuality.

This is not a matter of fine-tuning the President’s ear on gay issues. Instead, we call on him to take up a broad-ranging version of religious freedom as a means of reframing the entire debate over gay rights. Yes, of course Obama should repeal DADT—and suspend it immediately by executive order as is in his power. Of course he should move to repeal DOMA. But is this really the legacy of generations of activism for sexual freedom: gays in the military and marriage equality?  Or might sexual freedom implicate broader questions of social justice that exceed the frame of “gay identity,” per se?

In a recent issue of the Nation, Lisa Duggan highlighted Equality Utah’s proposal for an Adult Joint Support Declaration, which would allow a legal framework for caretaking—medical decision-making, health insurance benefit designation, and inheritance—among adults who are not necessarily related by sexual or romantic partnerships. Such a proposal separates secular benefits not just from marriage but from sexuality as well, further removing the current entanglement between state benefits and religious debate over sexual practice. As Duggan points out, such a measure could spark unexpected political alliances as well as expand the support for caretaking in our society well beyond the question of marriage or domestic partnership, getting, in her words, “the AARP on board to lobby for medical next of kin, tax and inheritance rights for ‘Golden Girls’ households, or attract libertarians who want to take the state out of the business of ‘recognizing’ sexual or romantic relationships entirely.”

This shift in framework—from gay rights to the basic ground of freedom and equality—would do much not only for gay people and for the Obama administration’s standing with the oft-invoked “gay community;” it could significantly alter how controversial issues are approached in American public life. We might move beyond the identity politics of rights-based movements, even as we preserve the ability to act on identity- and rights-based claims. Who knows, but we might even create the basis for one of the most promising possibilities invoked by the early Obama campaign: not just change we can believe in on given political issues, but the possibility of creating a “new majority” that goes beyond individual issues to larger questions and practices of liberty and justice for all. Achieving this new majority cannot happen if we trade off some people’s sexual freedom for some other people’s religious freedom (or vice versa).

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]