Home R. Lee Chapman | Obama, gay marriage and ‘tar-babies’

R. Lee Chapman | Obama, gay marriage and ‘tar-babies’


The name “tar-baby” was a term I became familiar with as a child. I enjoyed the children’s stories written by Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus stories that followed the exploits of the infamous Br’er Fox to capture the elusive Br’er rabbit. In the second of these stories, Br’er Fox forms a small doll “baby” out of tar, clothes it and places it in a spot for his nemesis to find.

Upon finding the tar-baby, Br’er Rabbit becomes frustrated with the dolls unwillingness to exchange pleasantries with him. In his anger, he strikes the doll and becomes entangled in the tar and thus becomes the immediate item on Br’er Fox’s menu. Later, the rabbit cunningly achieves his escape.

In the years since I heard those stories, I have heard the term “tar baby” used in a racist way in insulting African-American friends of mine. In spite of this fact, I still believe the “tar baby” term is the most appropriate metaphor to use when anticipating what may become a difficult political issue for president-elect Obama … the issue of gay marriage.

In the days since the election, we have seen ever-increasing crowds of protesters coming out around the country in response to anti-gay marriage amendments approved by voters in states such as California, Florida and Arizona. The California vote in particular, seems to have shocked those in the gay-rights movement into action as they now understand that even in the state seen as the most progressive in terms of issues important to gay Americans, they are still facing formidable resistance to the advance of what they deem as basic civil rights for gays and lesbians.

When Bill Clinton was inaugurated in 1993, he entered office with the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid” ringing as the bellwether moving Americans back toward the Democratic Party after 12 years of Republican control of the White House. However, within a few short months, President Clinton’s efforts on behalf of gay Americans in the military placed him on the political hot seat and set the stage for the fiasco for the Democrats that were the midterm elections of 1994 that ushered in Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority in Congress.

Now here we are at the end of a historic election 16 years later with the first African-American about to be inaugurated as president, and what issue related to “change” might be on the agenda yet again but the issue of rights for gay Americans. Now, this is where that imagery of the “tar-baby” seems most appropriate, because even though the economy is yet again priority one on the minds of the majority of Americans, there is no denying that the support of gay and lesbian Americans was a crucial part of the Democratic victories this month.

President-elect Obama has made his position on gay rights very clear in the proceeding months. He has been a proponent of gay rights as evidenced by: his sponsorship of legislation in the Illinois legislature that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, his score of 89 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign scorecard in 2006 and his publicly calling for the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy now employed by the military that was recognized as the official policy during that time 16 years ago under the President Clinton.

He has also, however, made it clear that he does not support gay marriage. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune he stated, “I am a Christian. And so, although I try to not have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.” He does support civil unions as an alternative believing, in his words, that “I think it is the right balance to strike in this society.”

The events of the last 10 days would suggest that those in the gay-rights movement will not be satisfied with Mr. Obama’s position. It would be safe to assume that as the days pass, the Obama administration will come under increasing pressure to move left on the issue, thus placing himself in an unenviable position between two of his staunchest supporters, namely those who support gay-rights and those in the African-American church.

While those in African-American churches are strongly liberal on pocketbook issues, it is well documented that in the 2004 election, the Republicans targeted and were able to obtain a number of key African-American votes by exploiting the aversion to gay rights that the majority of African Americans have expressed. The issue received a great deal of attention in January 2006, when a two-day conference was held at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. Although the conference was able to attract some highly public participants, namely the Rev. Al Sharpton, the conservative black ministers were not interested in participating and if nothing else, a consensus was reached among the conference participants that getting many of the church ministers to take up the cause of talking openly about gay and lesbian issues in the black church would be daunting at best.

So what will President Obama do when the voices to his left begin to rise? What will he do when some of the very Hollywood establishment types who so publicly endorsed and campaigned for him begin to express dismay at his inability to recognize and protect this basic “civil-right” that gays and lesbians increasingly demand. Whether President Obama actually picks up the doll or walks on by, my guess his he will definitely end up with dirty hands.



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