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Barack Obama’s decision and announcement endorsing same-sex marriage on Wednesday last week represents not only a change of heart for the US president, but a bold and potentially risky move in an election year.
Many observers say it was Vice-President Joseph Biden’s decision to go public on the same issue that forced his hand, but advisers say Obama intended to do it before he was nominated for re-election for a second term of office later this year. Whichever it is, the decision is welcome.
By then the president, who had said for a long time that his views on same-sex marriage were “evolving”, had repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and ended a ban on openly gay people serving in the US military. He had also disavowed a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In the US context, where gay marriage is highly controversial, particularly among Bible Belt voters, all these moves are brave.
Obama went so far as to say his wife and daughters had helped to persuade him to go further than simply endorsing civil unions.
He also said God had helped dictate his actions. It was no surprise that Mitt Romney, who looks likely to win the Republican nomination and become Obama’s election rival, opposed Obama’s announcement.
Still, this does not mean same-sex marriage will be passed into law in the US. On Tuesday last week, voters in North Carolina supported a ban on same-sex marriage. Some say Obama’s main opponents would mostly comprise working-class people and African-Americans.
Yet we have to admire his boldness. After all, there are only 10 countries in the world where same-sex marriage is legislated and, fortunately, we are one of them, along with Canada, Argentina, Spain and others. Legislation is pending in Australia, Finland and another six countries.
But this doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels.
Just last week, ANC MP Patekile Holomisa was at the centre of outrage at the suggestion that the constitution might be amended to remove gay rights. That would be inconceivable.
But the fact that the thought is there is disturbing.
We’re ahead of the Americans. Let’s stay there.