Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pride and Shame in Latvia

I used to march in Gay Pride Parades. I have vivid memories burned into my flesh of those first few times, some forty years ago, when I walked with a mixture of fear and elation, when I looked nervously at the hate-filled faces on the sidelines and tried to focus on the smiling faces on the sidelines instead. Of fighting back tears when straight friends got into the parade and walked with me.

How things have changed. I don’t march any more. And it’s not just my age and my tired feet. America’s pride marches used to be victory celebrations. Now they’re mostly just parties. And I find myself mumbling, “You kids go ahead. Enjoy. I’m going to sit this one out.”

What a rush of memories comes when I see there are places on the planet where those pride parades are only now beginning to form, and where “pride” still has fresh new significance.

We talk now, whenever the topic comes up, of a sea change in attitudes. The sexual shame and repression which authoritarian Christians and others still mistake for morality is still in the air, but authoritarianism is on the skids of late. People are laughing at Michele Bachmann’s ignorance, despite the media effort to rile us up with the fear she might be a serious political figure. The Irish Prime Minister, in one of the most catholic places on earth, has described the Vatican as “a culture of dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism.” And then there’s New York. Just the sound of “New York” brings a smile to my face.

How easy it is to become complacent. If bad things aren’t happening to us, they aren’t happening. One risks being a bore. With all those gay folk getting married in New York, with Focus on the Family’s bark getting fainter by the day, with the announcement yesterday that Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell will end officially on September 20, you do feel like a bore sometimes in pressing gay rights as an issue.

But it is, and it’s clearly going to be a long time before the fat lady sings. Some group known as New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms has filed a suit to overturn the New York decision. And A UCLA law school report just out claims a third of gays and lesbians are still closeted at work. There’s still work to do.

What prompted this particular reflection, though, was something going on outside the United States. There is a new documentary from Latvia about to be shown at gay film festivals in Philadelphia and New York. It has the awkward title, Homo@lv. It shows the courage of people only now daring to go into the street and declare a right to be. And facing openly and publicly a vicious thuggish homophobia. That they are showing courage is an understatement. As late as 2010, three quarters of the Latvian populace is still outspokenly homophobic, and not only do the marchers appear to be without police protection, the “good Christian folk” of Latvia appear to be running interference for the thugs. It’s an old old story. “If you didn’t act like that, they wouldn’t want to beat you up.”

We are focused at the moment on the tragedy in Oslo, the work of a cold and calculating paranoid schizophrenic. Much of the discourse revolves around such things as the foolishness of the early assumption this was an Islamic terrorist and the need to avoid the trap of allowing the pendulum to swing to the other extreme. And just because Anders Breivik is mentally deranged doesn’t mean he doesn’t represent a common fear of the other.

The mobs of homophobes in the streets of Riga say more about the sickness within than a lone killer can. They are the storm troopers of a cultural force that rises out of fear of the other. (The –phobia in homophobia is not a mistake, as is often claimed). The fear comes out in less overtly violent ways in Marcus Bachmann’s gay aversion therapy, in the church’s insistence that homosexuality is “disordered”, in the news that one third of American gay workers are in the closet. But it is a fear all the same. One that would go away if they turned the lights on.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a difference between a thug and a lady who smiles and tells you she loves you when she wants to save your soul. One requires the help of the police; the other requires greater vigilance and the willingness to engage to expose the falsehoods. They are not the same thing, exactly.

But there is a common thread. You can see it in the Latvian chant, “Pride brings shame on Latvia.” “Pride” has been twisted by the mob into a bad word. Latvian gay folk chose the English word clearly to tie their movement to efforts in English-speaking countries, but you can be sure the crowd knows what it means. “We don’t want no stinkin’ pride.” How like the way socialist (one concerned with “the least of these, my brethern”), liberal (one focused on freedom and openness) and progressive (one seeking to make things better) have been turned into words to be spat out, words to describe the “other”, the “not-us”, those who would tear down the family and Western Civilization.

Watch the video and tell me what you see, besides the obvious fact that the world is getting smaller. An effort at long last to bring dignity to the lives of gays and lesbians in Eastern Europe? Or a reminder that this long Wagnerian opera is only in its first act?

Have a look at the trailer.

Lesbiešu un geju tiesības ir cilvēktiesības!


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hachiko: A Dog’s Story - A film review

Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, a 2008 film starring Richard Gere directed by Lasse Hallström somehow passed me by until yesterday. Possibly it’s because my love of dogs went into the red zone recently. Like anybody who has lived in Tokyo for even a brief time, I know the name and the story of the original Hachiko well, and I’m certain I would have made a point of tracking down this American spin-off. I’m glad the time finally came.

Hachiko, the original, was an Akita dog taken in by a Tokyo University professor in 1924. Akitas are known for their strong loyalties to a single individual, but Hachiko seems to have been unusual. Every day for a year he followed Professor Ueno to Shibuya Station and came back again to meet him when he came home. In May of 1925, the professor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and didn’t show up at his usual time. Hachiko nonetheless went back every day for nine years at the usual time, almost to the time of his own death in 1935.

Hachiko is a national legend in Japan. The exit at Shibuya Station is even called the “Hachiko Exit” and there is a statue of Hachiko marking the most common meeting spot in the city. If you are tempted to leave because the person you are waiting for is late, you imagine the guilt you would feel over leaving after a short time when the standard set by Hachiko is nine years.

The American film is a remake of a Japanese film, Hachiko Monogatari (The Story of Hachiko), the top grossing Japanese film (¥2 billion) of 1987. It was reset in a small town New England, but the story line was maintained, with the ending tidied up. Hachi returns for ten years until his death.

Since the film has been out for some time, and has over 1700 reviews on Netflix, it is unlikely I can add anything that others have not already said, but there are times when audience reactions are as worthy of analysis as the film they are reacting to. Marx says one’s world view is determined by one’s relationship to wealth. If you can allow me a ridiculous trivialization with this comparison, one’s view of Hachiko will almost surely be determined by one’s relationship to dogs. Real dog lovers are likely to ball their eyes out and give it five stars. It's hard to be objective if you've ever experienced the love of an animal, especially if you've known one that goes crazy at the sight of you. The rest of the world will then face the second great divider, a widely-held conviction that emotional issues are less serious than intellectual ones, and the view that, while one engages the brain better when emotions are excluded, any straight-on engagement with emotions is by its very nature manipulative.

This shows up in the Rotten Tomatoes reviews. The gap between professional movie critics and the audience at large could scarcely be greater. Of the 24 film critics who reviewed it, 14 liked it, 10 didn’t. That’s a pretty low 58% positive rating. Of the over 9000 individuals who reviewed it, however, 85% liked it. Similarly, on Netflix, the average rating of the nearly half a million viewers who rated it was 4.1 out of 5 stars.

Viewer after viewer spoke of a flood of tears. Whether it’s the silent loyalty of a creature who cannot speak, or the fact that there is no buffer between the death of the lead character and the sense of loss you feel by putting yourself in the dog’s position, rarely have I seen a presentation of grief so starkly depicted. Many reviewers resent this, understandably. One complains, how could the genius who made such winners as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules, My Life as a Dog, and Casanova, be reduced to making the film equivalent of Hallmark Cards? And what of the heartthrob of An Officer and a Gentleman playing a grown man with a tennis ball in his mouth trying to teach a dog to fetch?

That depends, I think, on whether you believe Hallström is simply letting the highly sentimental material do the work, or whether it actually took talent to get the viewer to take a dog’s point of view. I see the same warmth of treatment here I saw in Gilbert Grape and My Life as a Dog, and would argue there is much more than mere tear-jerking going on.

There are other criticisms to be made of the work. I found the scenes of the professor in the classroom stilted and unconvincing, and many other family interaction scenes stagey. I am sympathetic to dog lovers who objected that the dog was portrayed too much like a human being – being given the freedom to roam after the loss of his master, for example, rather than being confined so he could be cared for.

At the same time, I would give Hallström some poetic license here, since his goal was to foreground the stirring story of absolute loyalty, and not to provide a tutorial on dog-rearing.

Grief and loss are not well dealt with in our culture. We shun things we fear might make us cry or feel bad. I find that tragic. A way of cutting oneself off from the richness of life.

Don’t rent Hachiko casually. Pick a time when you’re able to give free rein to your emotions. Expect to cry. Many sentimental folk will tear up early on at the cuteness of Hachiko as a pup. Many others will say to themselves, when the professor dies and they are still dry-eyed, that they have met the challenge not to cry and emerged victorious. But just you wait.

Once you go through the experience, you will be in a position to ask yourself whether it is possible to deal with any emotional experience without feeling you’ve been manipulated, and whether there isn’t something quite dishonest about that. You don’t want to believe a movie should be rated highly because it makes you cry. But isn’t it also be true that it shouldn’t be disparaged because it does, either?


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Les chagrins de la vie

I know this sadness is only temporary, but…

My sister Miki and I overheard our daddies talking the other night. They didn’t know we were listening.

In the space of one hour, we learned that

… Catholics and Mormons had ganged up on them and made it impossible for them to marry in California;

… Betty Ford had died;

… some people think there is no global warming and the world is only 6000 years old;

… the top 1% of the country controls a third of the nation’s wealth, the top 20% owns 85% of the wealth and the bottom 80% only 15%;

… my daddies’ noses only capture a fraction of what Miki and I can smell, and their ears only a fraction of what we can hear;

Democracy is failing before our eyes, the free press has sold out to Rupert Murdoch, bookstores are becoming a thing of the past, nobody can spell anymore, and Netflix has decided to double its rates.

Once we ate puppy food and didn’t give a hoot about the fat content.

Now our daddies have switched us to an adult doggie diet, and nothing will ever be the same.

Where does the time go?

Why is life so short?


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Lying by Omission

The folks down at the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) have quite a knack for making you laugh out loud sometimes.

If you go to the website of this organization leading the battle to keep same-sex marriage from happening around the country, you will see a lead which says, “NEW POLL: 57% of New Yorkers reject same-sex marriage.” I don’t know how long they intend to keep this “information” up, but it’s still there as of today, July 9, 2011, no doubt, to aid in justifying their efforts to kick all the legislators out of office who helped pass New York’s same-sex marriage rights law.

The curious thing is, if you look at the results of other polls, you find the opposite result:

Poll Date taken % in favor (% against)
Gallup May 5-8 53 (45%)
CNN April 9-10 51% (47%)
ABC March 10-13 53% (44%)
Pew Feb. 22-Mar. 1 45% (46%)

In other words, all other major polls available show the tide has turned and Americans willing to share their opinions with poll takers are now either in favor of same-sex marriage by a clear margin or at least at a statistical tie.

So where would NOM’s statistics come from?

It only took a minute to uncover the source of the misinformation. It’s true that 57% of those they polled answered "agree" to question #6: “Do you agree or disagree that marriage should only be between a man and a woman?” 32% disagree and 11% answered “Don’t know/no response.”

But then look at the very next question - #7 – “May I know your age, please?” and look at the age distribution of the people they polled:

7% - 18 - 39
15% - 40 - 49
31% - 50 - 59
38% - 60+
9% - no response

Only 7% are in the age group that other polls reveal approve overwhelmingly of same-sex marriage, and 69%, over two-thirds, are in the age group where most of the disapproval shows up across America.

Nowhere on the face of the website is there any indication the poll was adjusted to reflect this age difference. If you tried day and night to find a better example of a lie by omission, I doubt you'd come up with one. In fact, claiming 57% of New Yorkers are against same-sex marriage is a lie by commission as well; it's 57% of a group selected to represent those known from previous experience to be against same-sex marriage.

Never mind that the rights of citizens should not be decided by majority opinion but by rights established in the U.S. Constitution interpreted through judicial review. As we all know, policy can be established by all three branches of government, by executive order, through legislation, and as a consequence of judicial review. And it can be done both at the federal and state levels. And which of these many sources has authority is a question we tackle on virtually a daily basis.

Because popular opinion in much of the country has lagged behind the growing consciousness on the part of gays that they will get recognition of their rights only when they demand them, and because liberals are less likely to go to the polls than conservatives, NOM’s best means of maintaining a national homophobic ideology has been to try to urge that policy be established by public referenda. And in years when no elections are taking place, to try to discredit the decisions of courts and legislatures by showing how much they are at odds with “what the people want.”

The problem with that is that people change their opinions. What do you do then?

NOM’s strategy has been to try to tie the right to marry to good healthy child-rearing (as if that were the norm among heterosexuals), which they falsely claim is not possible for gay parents – when all studies show the exact opposite is true. NOM also uses fear by slogging away at the old canard that gays are a danger to children and that children will be taught, horror of horrors, that having same-sex parents is OK. And if you listen to Maggie Gallagher, you will hear the inference that this implies opposite-sex parenting is not OK, as if it were an either/or proposition.

NOM has come to be known as a center for deception.

No one should be surprised at this latest effort to twist the facts to serve their purposes.

But couldn’t they be a little less clumsy about it?


Friday, July 8, 2011

Not a bad day for news, all things considered

Yesterday morning the papers were full of gay related news items, one quite ridiculous, and the rest positively sublime. Just got around to catching up with it all.

To start with the ridiculous, there is the sad tale of the good intentions of New York State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol. Assemblyman Lentol, who represents Brooklyn’s 5th District, decided to give fifty bucks to his church. To Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish School, to be precise. The money was returned. Not that the school is rolling in dough, mind you. Even though Lentol is a parishoner at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish, he is also is one of the guys who voted for same-sex marriage rights in New York this past month, and Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio says he doesn’t want his money.

You’ve got to wonder where the line is on this sort of thing. Pepsi-Cola rots the teeth and guts of millions of children around the world each year. But you can bet your bippy when they gave five million bucks to Save the Children last year, Save the Children didn’t send the check back.

Maybe if Bishop DiMarzio were running Save the Children he would have.

What an image we get of the catholic church these days. Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown of the catholic front organization, the grossly misnamed National Organization for Marriage (NOM) are on their way to jail, if there is any justice. And a bishop punishing one of his parishoners for following his conscience and making a decision the majority of American Catholics would agree is the right one. Oh, and by the way, not only is Lentol’s money no longer welcome in the parish, Lentol isn’t either.

Fortunately, the likes of Bishop DiMarzio are losing their grip on the church, as an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter two days ago reveals. And the NCR is hardly a lone voice, as a marvelously articulate Catholic theologian I’ve been following has demonstrated.

And now for the sublime.

I’ll just list them as I found them. They’re all so good there’s no point in trying to rank them.

First off, Alan Colmes is spreading the good news of the work of that heroic Republican, Fred Karger, who is running for president. Never mind the oxymoron you get when heroic is followed by Republican. Have a look at what Karger is up to.

It’s not surprising to find a Republican with money. What is very satisfying, though, is to find one putting it to such good use in fighting for dignity and equality, and against the goals of NOM. More on Fred Karger in a minute.

The loss of Proposition 8 in California was heavy and some of us have been down in the dumps about it the past couple of years. Now, it turns out, there may be an unexpected silver lining and a delicious irony here. Apparently, the failure of gays to hold on to their rights in a public referendum, even though the courts, the legislature and the majority of Californians were behind them, demonstrated to the court that there was just cause to see gays as a group without a lot of power – and that helped weigh the legal argument in favor of treating gay rights cases at the level of “strict scrutiny,” which made it easier to demonstrate discrimination.

This didn’t slow down the folks at NOM, of course. They went right to work fronting once again for the Official Catholic Church – in Maine this time – to sponsor another misinformation campaign, and once again, they were successful. Maine gays and lesbians lost their opportunity to marry.

And this is where Fred Karger comes in. Fred fired up an effort to reveal the money laundering practices of NOM which led to an active investigation by the state’s Attorney General and the Maine Ethics Commission. If these folks make the case against NOM, Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown of NOM could actually end up in prison. Not a shoo-in case, unfortunately, because the state would have to demonstrate their intent to break the law when they decided not to report where they got the $1.9 million they used to fight marriage equality in Maine in November 2009. Maine still has an election law which requires donors reveal themselves, you see. Maggie and Brian work better in the dark and have sued the state of Maine to let their donors remain anonymous. I haven't read the catechism cover to cover, but I can't find lack of transparency in the index.

Maggie and Brian have also sued 23 states to invalidate all of their election laws requiring transparency in donations to causes, and are now threatening to spend $2 million to defeat the four Republican State Senators in New York who voted for gay marriage just now. Assemblyman Lentol, if these sharks have their way, may have been just an appetizer.

They are on thin ground, actually. Fred Karger filed complaints in California after Prop. 8 went through and that led to the Mormon Church being slapped with 13 counts of election fraud. Apparently some 70% of the money to decide the fate of Californians came directly from Mormon church folk in Utah at the behest of their church leaders. And it gets better. Today it appears they have been shot down again, this time in Minnesota.

As Fred says, look at it this way. If Maggie and Brian lose on gay marriage, they can always turn their attention to the growing divorce rate, something famously missing from their “save marriage” efforts to keep people from marrying.

Next, I caught PBS’s Talk of the Nation in progress while I made a quick run to the post office. Moderator Neal Conan was interviewing New York Times writer, David Coleman, about his new book on "coming out." I missed the intro, so I assumed he was talking about being gay. After a minute or two, I realized they were talking about a book he had just written about coming out as a member of AA.

The problem is that he broke the rule that members of AA adhere to strict anonymity, and Coleman was defending his actions by making the point that a) he wasn't outing anybody else - just himself, and b) this rule made sense when the shame of being labeled an alcoholic was severe. Now, increasingly, it's being considered a medical problem, as is mental illness, and "coming out" actually improves the chance of success in overcoming alcoholism, because you get community support when you do.

“This is a little like gay was, not so long ago,” says Coleman. “I’m a gay man too, and I’m very out about that.”

While being an alcoholic is a negative, being a recovering alcoholic is a very positive thing in the culture these days, and the interesting part of this whole thing is that coming out as gay is now the model that is taken for granted as a plus, a nice example of how “gay = OK” has arrived in the culture and found a safe home.

Then, back at the computer, I came across the happy fact that the Justice Department may actually have meant what they said when they agreed to act on the assumption that DOMA was unconstitutional. They just filed a brief in San Francisco federal court on behalf of a woman demanding insurance benefits for her wife. DOMA says no. The Justice Department says DOMA shows “animus” toward gays – there is no other federal benefit to anti-gay legislation – and thus it should go. And don’t forget that judiciary hearing coming up of “S.598, The Respect for Marriage Act: Assessing the Impact of DOMA on American Families." introduced by Dianne Feinstein in March. It already has 25 Senate co-sponsors.

There’s more. Next came the news that a federal court issued the order we’ve all been waiting for for years, that Don't Ask/Don't Tell law should now be fully rescinded and there must be no more expulsions from the military on the grounds of homosexuality. Even though Congress rescinded the law last year, it has taken this long to get the courts on board, apparently. But the time has come. Maybe. It turns out there’s another appeal possible. But it would have to be pursued by the Pentagon, and that is not considered likely, since the Defense Department has already announced it will not pursue DADT cases. Once the Pentagon says it’s time, then the military still has 60 more days to implement it and it’s done done done. Twenty years ago already, retired Colonel Margarete Cammermeyer came out. Come September, we should be in line with the 90% of the military who, when polled, avowed they couldn’t care less.

Not a bad day, all things considered.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Power and Spirit - A Review of Michelangelo Revealed

I happened upon a fascinating program on PBS last night entitled Michelangelo Revealed: Angels, Demons, Artists and Intrigue. I’m a Johnny-come-lately here. It has been aired before. But I want to recommend it all around.

The documentary plays out like a mystery or detective novel. It’s got good guys and bad guys, and while the bad guys win, the good guys come across as greater than life. It has much of the suspense and intrigue of The Da Vinci Code, with which it has been compared for its attack on the church. The difference, though, is considerable. Michelangelo Revealed has a much better claim to authenticity, and where The Da Vinci Code ridicules, Michelangelo Revealed shames.

Michelangelo Revealed should appeal to everybody with even a passing familiarity with Michelangelo, and with art history. And to lovers of Italy. What I found riveting, however, was the revelation that Michelangelo was a member, or at least a close associate, of a group of catholic reformers working inside the church of his day to head off the excesses of hierarchical corruption. These people, known as The Spirituali, shared the basic view of Luther and Calvin that the way to heaven was through faith alone, and not through good works and contributions to the church.

Those following closely the struggle within the church today between conservative forces who focus their energies on maintaining centralized power, and progressive forces seeking to broaden the base of the church to include the entire body of believers, will have no trouble seeing a parallel between Pope Paul III and John XXIII on the one hand, and Pope Paul IV and the popes who succeeded John XXIII and have tried to turn back his Vatican II reforms.

Paul IV, the former Cardinal Carafa, used the Inquisition to hunt down his arch enemies, Cardinal Pole and other Spirituali, and even went after Michelangelo, cutting off his pension. To survive, Michelangelo went so far as to resculpt some of his sculptures which had revealed his sympathies with the progressive faction seeking internal reform.

It comes as no surprise that there is controversy over the views of the program’s director, Fabrizio Ruggirello, producer Marco Visalberghi, and writer, Vania Del Borgo. While I’m not in a position to speak to their veracity, I am sure others will. What they have delivered is a close look at the conclusion of art historian Antonio Forcellino that Michelangelo was a reformer within the church, and was punished for it. He’s commonly portrayed as a favored son of the church and of Pope Julius. Here, he is the victim of a harsh crackdown on religious dissent.

This may be old news to a few church insiders, but it’s pretty flashy stuff to the rest of us. The publicity is almost certain to displease the church’s right wing. How this story figures in future discussions of the modern church and its attempts to influence politics in America and elsewhere, remains to be seen.

Don’t be put off by the unfortunate title of the series, “Secrets of the Dead” and the creepy music of the intro, which might indicate you’re about to watch some sort of horror show. You are, of course, but the horror is the abuse of power of the conservative church hierarchy, not some ghoulish force that lives in the dark of night.

The struggle that continues today has been toned down. There is no Inquisition, no torture on the racks, no book burning. There is banning, as Hans Küng and other dissident theologians can tell you about, but at least they no longer live under house arrest. The ideology of the power-structure hard-liners is reflected in the insistence on clerical celibacy, on the subordination of women, on an attempt to limit all human sexuality to reproductive sex, define abortion as murder, and, until very recently, to protect the dignity and power of the bishops by hiding the child-abuse scandals around the world, rather than surrender authority to larger non-religious sources of justice.

We sometimes forget there is another church beyond Official Vatican – the 80 to 90% of the church that doesn’t follow its strictures on birth control, the Catholic governor of New York and the majority of New York Catholics who brought about the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples this week, the Liberation Theologists and others who insist the work of the church should be primarily pastoral, not political, and those working with people of other faiths and people outside the faith to foster universal human rights. They will see a forerunner in Michelangelo, who had his own copy of the Bible in Italian, a crime he could have been put to death for.

Traditionalists will want to argue this is just more church-bashing. Others will see it as an opportunity to dwell a while on the life and work of one of the greatest artists of all time, and an attempt to put history right. Still others, inside the church and outside, will see it not as church-bashing at all, but as the story of a man who loved his church and used his talents to make it see past the corruption to the reason the church was founded in the first place.

The program is available here in its entirety, at least at present.


Friday, July 1, 2011

The Withering Away Hypothesis

For the longest time now I’ve run hot and cold on Barack Obama. I fell victim to the American illusion (if not the world’s illusion) that the person who sits in the Oval Office runs the world, and find myself bristling constantly over the fact that he doesn’t run the world the way I want him to. Lately, I’ve been pissed off at him for declaring that his views on same-sex marriage are “evolving.” I was delighted to note that Dan Savage attended a function at the White House recently wearing an “Evolve Already!” button.

But being an admirer of Dan Savage as an articulate spokesman on the left side of the gay liberation team doesn’t mean I can’t also admire Andrew Sullivan on the right side. And I think he has just made a point that should go a long way in helping gays and lesbians, and others as well, obviously, to calm the beast within that rises up every time Obama seems to fall short on fulfilling our superhero dreams.

It’s a daily frustration to watch him act as if he had any common ground with his Republican opponents, who have shown their top priority, even ahead of the national welfare, to be the destruction of the Obama presidency so they can reclaim power in 2012 and beyond. And to watch him further the goals of a corrupt capitalist system and an imperial foreign policy.

But on the social issue where the rubber hits the road for me, the dreams of LGBT Americans of getting out from under the dead hand of religion, Andrew Sullivan has given me second thoughts on Obama’s strategy of wait-and-see.

Way back when the issue of same-sex marriage first came up, I didn’t understand why everybody failed to see an obvious solution. In many modern states, both states with a clear separation of church and state, like France, and states where the two are still tied together, like Germany, people have figured out that the most practical way to proceed is to view marriage as a civil contract, quite independently of anything the church may have to say. It’s the state that regulates who gets the kids in the event of a divorce, who is responsible for whom at the end of life, who pays the mortgage. The state puts the contract together, enforces it at the behest of its signers, and oversees the dissolution, if dissolution becomes necessary. And if the church wants to “sanctify” these unions, that’s not the state’s business. Go to city hall to sign on the dotted line, go to church in the white dress and do-si-do to Lohengrin to your heart’s content. There is absolutely no need for conflict. All this talk of discrimination goes up in smoke, if they choose not to sanctify you because you’re left-handed.

What we did in the U.S., unfortunately, was grant to clergy the right to act as agents of the state, and we’re still swimming in the muddy waters that lousy decision created. We gave the clowns an inch and they took a mile. Now, all over the land, we have to listen to jumping jack religios (“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”) who have persuaded themselves marriage is a religious institution that harks back to the Garden of Eden, without bothering to enlighten us on whether that theocracy was Methodist, Episcopalian or Quaker. And unaware, apparently, that the church didn’t start meddling in marriage until the Council of Trent, when it took away the right of religious to marry, which eliminated competition in inheritance rights, and forced the laity to marry in the church as a means of getting better control over their private lives.

Unfortunately letting the church believe they have the right to marry is a bed we made in America, and a bed we have to lie in, until (oh, dream on) we some day recognize that we don’t have to live forever with grandma’s furniture.

Another bed we have to lie in is our federal system and the distribution of rights between the federal government and the governments of the various states. This one I would not want to chuck out, actually. This one feels good. Even the part which says marriage is an issue for the states to determine, and not the federal government.

In the history of states’ rights, there have been issues where you want the feds to step in – ending segregation being the classic example. If Eisenhower had not sent troops to Little Rock in 1957, and federalized the Arkansas National Guard, who knows how many years or decades longer justice would have been beyond the reach of black Americans.

But Obama is following the argument that the right of gays to marry, while it is still about civil rights, is not of the same order of urgency as giving blacks a decent education, and satisfying as it would be for gays to get their due here and now, changing hearts and minds will ultimately assure a long-term solution. The sea change has taken place and the future is clear. Equal rights for gays is on the way. But as the one step forward, two steps back history of gay rights in California and Maine demonstrate, the struggle is messy and it seems to leave both sides bloodied. Better we should maintain the present course, these go-slow advocates insist. Let states reach their own decisions on a state level, whether through referenda, legislation, or court orders, over whether to allow gays and lesbians to marry. By moving more slowly, they give more and more people time to become convinced the arguments against the practice are built on the sands of prejudice and ignorance, and opposition gently dies a natural death. More and more conservatives, like David Frum, are coming around. Why fight enemies who are going to lay down their arms anyway?

When Prop. 8 went into effect, and Californian gays and lesbians lost their right to marry, the case went to the courts and it’s still in the courts two years later. As soon as one side wins a battle, the other side starts collecting funds for the next battle. And each new battle further entrenches the opposition.

In contrast, as straight people get to know gay people, opposition to gay people drops. As straight people get to know married gay people, opposition to gay marriage drops. And it doesn’t reappear. When you knock the opposition down, he gets up again. But when his will to fight has withered away, he no longer even needs to be defined as an enemy.

This is not to say, however, that this will happen automatically. On the contrary, it requires that gays and lesbians and those who support equal rights for gays and lesbians continue to provide time and money to keep the pressure up at the state level. It’s just that it’s far more likely that people will meet their neighbors and change hearts and minds at the state level than at the federal level, where we are at the whim of the likes of Justices Thomas and Scalia.

While I may have embellished Sullivan’s argument, the line of thinking is his. It’s an argument that asks us to think in terms of long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. His point is that while governors can throw themselves whole-heartedly into civil rights of citizens to marry on the state level, as Cuomo did in New York, because marriage is controlled by the states, presidents need to limit their actions to issues at the federal level, no matter how strong the temptation to micromanage and do the right thing at the state level.

Problem is, it’s also an argument which asks us to delay justice for long-term solutions, and that has never felt right. It asks the present generation to sacrifice itself for future generations, and that has never been pretty.

I am not 100% persuaded by Sullivan, so strong is my sense that I’m not getting any younger and justice for gays has been too long in coming already. But I am persuaded, for now, at least, that gays ought to maybe stop with the demonizing of Obama over his apparent foot-dragging when it comes to gay rights.

Consider this. Michele Bachmann and her quite possibly homosexually inclined husband Marcus, two provincials from East Jesus, Minnesota, are now capturing national attention as contenders for First Woman President and her First Man. Michele, a leading voice in the “small government” Republican Party, would take away from states the right to grant same-sex marriage, with an amendment to the Constitution, extending the disgrace of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and writing discrimination into law. Marcus has declared that gays are “barbarians” who need "to be educated…(and)…disciplined.”

On Obama’s watch, on the other hand, we have seen (to use Sullivan’s list) the HIV travel ban eliminated, legal support for DOMA withdrawn, and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell removed, so that, when fully implemented, gays and lesbians will have the right to serve proudly and openly in the armed forces.

To impatient gay liberation advocates, and I still count myself in their number, Obama is far from ideal. But let’s not inflate the rhetoric so that we’re talking about the “lesser of two evils.” The Bachmann types on the right are evil, if you will (“provincial” is adequate for me – I don’t need to call people evil.) But even the most bitterly disillusioned gays and lesbians cannot justify calling Obama evil. And that’s probably because he’s almost the perfect antithesis of these provincials from rural Minnesota.

If you live long enough, you may look back at Obama and wonder at his ability to keep his eye on the long-term solution.

Or not. As I said, justice here and justice now has a very nice ring.

But this is not a clear-cut issue. It’s an issue where both sides can differ without rancor.

And P.S. Minnesota need not be ashamed it has provincials. What place doesn’t? Minnesota, remember, also produced Garrison Keillor. And Walter Mondale. And Eugene McCarthy. And Kate Millett.

And Judy Garland.