Does the President need to “man up” on gay marriage? And if so, what would that look like? Are his personal beliefs about marriage equality more valuable and important than his administration’s concrete actions to expand the rights of LGBT people?
[NOTE: I wrote this post as reports of a new statement from the President on this matter were swirling about. Now that President Obama has “manned up” as it were, the use of this term has diminished considerably in public discourse. In this particular case, I still find the twisted application worth pondering, and I’ve added an update to reflect on the impact of the President’s new position./meme_ster]
Buzzing around the internet at the moment is a comment by former Pennsylvania governor and current cable pundit Ed Rendell, who said President Obama “should man up and say this is what I believe” about gay marriage. Linguist Ben Zimmer explains that man up covers a range of connotations, from “Don’t be a sissy” to “Do the responsible thing.” (I will reserve comment about the general attribution of responsible action to men for another post.)
Man up appeared to gain meme status in 2010 when Republican Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle used it against Harry Reid, followed by Sarah Palin using it against Republican leaders she deemed insufficiently supportive.
There is a bit of a jolt when man up is used by a woman challenging men, suggesting the woman is on power turf traditionally reserved for men. As has been observed, one never hears a man use the term “woman up” for reasons that should be obvious.
On one level, Rendell’s use of man up in this context is interesting in that it is a man-on-man challenge (both of whom present publicly as heterosexual) ostensibly on an issue of civil rights for homosexuals. Rendell suggests the President is not saying what he believes when he says he is “evolving” on the issue of marriage equality for homosexuals, and that to do so would be to man up.
So Rendell’s fascinating use of this meme questions the President’s “manhood,” and implies that he doesn’t mean what he says (that he’s lying), or he doesn’t take responsible action, or he isn’t “strong” like a “man.” (Further, for a white man to tell a black man to man up could have white supremacist connotations I trust Mr. Rendell would regret if he thought about it for one second.) The man up meme is pejorative. A man who can “up” is good. A man who cannot “up” is not good.
Well, that in itself is probably debatable, but I’ll move on lest I fall prey to phallic drift.
What’s of more interest to me here is how advocates for civil and human rights for homosexuals have responded to President Obama’s efforts on their behalf.
When the President publicly and repeatedly stated his intention to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (the military’s former institutionalized discrimination policy against homosexuals), many advocates complained that actions speak louder than words when they didn’t perceive sufficient progress.
In the current buzz, advocates are charging the opposite. Most advocates agree, and always mention, that the President’s achievements, his actions, on LGBT issues are so numerous as to be unprecedented. They say his actions indicate that the President supports marriage equality; for example, declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional (2/23/2011).
Their complaint seems to be that the President is not saying the right words (that he personally believes in gay marriage), and that this indicates he is making a political calculation to avoid the possibility of losing critical votes in an election that is 182 days away. This disturbs them because—what?—they want him to prioritize their desire for him to declare a personal belief in gay marriage right now, over his calculus of what behavior is most likely to assure that he remain in power long enough to help secure their right to marry? (We’ll set aside for the moment the fact that marriage rights are conferred by states.)
That is, the President has demonstrated unequivocally that it is not necessary for him, as an elected official, to hold a personal belief in gay marriage for him to work for legislation to secure marriage equality. He is President of all the people, and I’m quite sure he doesn’t personally agree with everyone.
If we scrutinize the President’s actions, is there evidence that he and his administration support and are working toward full equality for LGBT Americans? Has he taken responsible action so far? Has he earned any trust? Do his actions speak louder than his words? Has he, so to speak, manned up?
Whatever the case, insulting your allies is usually counterproductive. I would submit that questioning the President’s “manhood” is not an effective strategy for strengthening his resolve on this matter.
Update (6.25.2012): I’ve had several interesting and challenging conversations about this question since the President “came out” for marriage equality. His personal statement has had significant and influential impact on public opinion, and I appreciate more now the importance of making his personal support a public matter. What continues to bug me, I have to say, is that many people who are relieved and excited about the President’s personal statement still seem not to know the Obama administration’s extraordinary record—unprecedented record—of substantial changes in federal policies that directly affect the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. It’s just interesting, in the obsession-with-celebrity sort of way, that many people value words over actions, so much so that they cherish the words (which may sway opinion but do not change policy) over actions (which have been expanding the rights of LGBT Americans in concrete ways for three and a half years). It’s just odd to me, that’s all.