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At last, Barack Obama is asking the US to open a door that leads to acceptance

The President's declaration of support for gay marriage was a watershed moment in America. David Usborne reflects on news that gave him and his partner hope of a more equal future

David Usborne
Friday 11 May 2012 11:00 BST
David Usborne and his boyfriend Juan Carretero, who have recently celebrated their 10th anniversary as a couple in
New York City
David Usborne and his boyfriend Juan Carretero, who have recently celebrated their 10th anniversary as a couple in New York City (SIMON USBORNE)

You want to be with loved ones when something extraordinary happens in the world. The moment is easier to grasp when you can share. But I was alone and on the road when ABC interrupted its regular programming on Wednesday afternoon to reveal that the President had unexpectedly come out in favour of gay marriage. In fact, I was in a courtroom where no phones were allowed. I didn't learn about it for hours.

You might think it surprising that ABC would do that even though it's true the story was exclusive, given to one of its reporters, Robin Roberts, in an interview in the White House. There had been no massive loss of American lives somewhere. Indeed, Barack Obama's statement doesn't mean much legally in the immediate term. Yet NBC also broke into its schedule too to share its rival's scoop. So someone somewhere considers this important.

I do too. In fact, for several long minutes after I had returned to my hotel room here in Greensboro, North Carolina and flicked on the laptop I couldn't altogether believe what I was seeing. As a reporter with a beat that includes American politics, I am trained to keep my cynical instincts honed. But I was floored. I wanted to talk, which I suppose is what I am doing now, in the same hotel room.

Lots of emotions converge and I should explain. I am gay though I was in a straight relationship for 20 years, 10 of them married and I have two adult children. My boyfriend, JuanJo, and I are celebrating 10 years. As residents of New York we almost never feel like victims of discrimination, but there are things about our situation that are unfair, notably when it comes to immigration.

Gays in New York and now in five other states and Washington DC can marry but for those couples where one has permanent residency and the other does not, it helps not a jot, because immigration is a federal matter. It does for straights and that makes me cross.

But never mind matters as dry as green cards and visas. How to explain the complexity of my feelings here? Over the years friends have asked all kinds of questions about the two halves of my life, if that is what they are. Some veer into the very personal, even about sexual satisfaction. At the time I came out, there was pain, for sure, but mostly because of the pain I had given to others.

My children recently witnessed my bursting into tears during a night of reflection about what I had taken them – and their mother – through. But the most important thing, for instance with my parents, was to explain that the pain was incidental to the discovery of new kind of happiness. I am sometimes asked if I regret "wasting" the first 20 years of my adulthood occupying the "wrong" camp. I can understand, but it's idiotic. I never have, no, not for one second.

The Obama declaration so affects me because the transition that America is making is in a small way tracks the one I experienced. Does that make sense? Perhaps more accurately America is being asked to go through the same scary door that I led my loved ones through 12 years ago, a door to acceptance. This is all I can offer: I am privileged to have been spoiled by straight love and gay love and they are equal. And must be equal and must therefore be treated equally. Simple as that. I beg for it in fact, including in this country I now live in.

The backlash against gay marriage means there are now 30 states in the US with constitutional amendments outlawing it. The most recent to join that club: the state I am in now, North Carolina. Reporting the passage of so-called Amendment 1 defining a marriage as only between a man and a woman by a 20-point margin in voting on Tuesday is how my day on Wednesday begun. What had happened here seemed especially dark, distilling the ignorance, indeed meanness that fuels these state-level efforts that are engineered simply to deny us the equality I am asking for. Most of the agitators against us describe themselves as Christian; they cling to a conservative movement that says government should stay out of our lives. There is something askew here of course.

I have met and talked with countless Americans, educated folk and always polite, who for now can't see the space in their hearts or minds to consider gay marriage allowable. Very occasionally I will let on that I am gay, have kids and a boyfriend. First there is bafflement. (Gay, children, wife, what?) Oh, the response goes, we have nothing against gay people, we love them, we have gay friends and we don't discriminate. Just don't think you can marry.

Sometimes I feel guilty I don't do more to support gay rights. I fantasise about hitting the road and emotionally undressing before large conservative audiences as if I could persuade them to change their minds. I want to ask them to think about that one straight couple we all know whose love for each other humbles and amazes and tell them that I know gay couples like that, Philip and Jim for example whose devotion for one another is oceans deep.

This is why President Obama's words matter so much. I have no voice, but he does. Many of us will remember where we were yesterday when we saw the first news bulletins and clips of the ABC interview, because it surely was a watershed moment in what is America's last big civil rights struggle. As I say, his words will not result in new laws being passed but the conversation is now changed forever. "It is important for me personally to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married." There. Thank you.

Of course, the political (cynical) side of me asks questions about motivation and timing. On the latter, we may owe gratitude to Joe Biden, the Vice-President, who set this bonfire alight saying on television last Sunday that he was "entirely comfortable" with gay marriage. This was not part of some White House choreography. We are told now that while Mr Obama had already decided to come out in favour of gay marriage before the November election but it was not in the diary for this week. Biden had got "a little over his skis," Obama told Ms Roberts.

And of course, not the whole of the US is onside. There was negative reaction from several quarters, including unsurprisingly from the Catholic Church. "We cannot be silent in the face of words or actions that would undermine the institution of marriage, the very cornerstone of our society," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The people of this country, especially our children, deserve better."

Clearly, there are political risks involved in the President's move. While the latest polls show most Americans approving of gay marriage by a small margin – a big change from a few years ago – they also show that acceptance is far lower in two groups important to Mr Obama's hopes for re-election, blacks and Hispanics. It could hurt him in some key swing states. Probably for that reason he also asserted that he still considers it right for individual states to chart their own courses on the issue, a caveat I wish he hadn't made.

In a sense he was trapped. On Monday another cabinet member, Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, also said he favoured gay marriage and doubtless other secretaries were lining up to say the same. For himself, he had long said his position on the issue was "evolving" but suddenly that didn't look good enough, particularly for the first black president, in whom civil rights aspirations are so embodied. Mr Obama was displaying honesty because the transition was upon him. He had finally seen that door and walked through it and decided it was time to lead America through it too.

Young Romney and the boy with bleached blond hair

If Barack Obama won the gay vote with his declaration in support of gay marriage on Wednesday, Mitt Romney's campaign did nothing to redress the balance yesterday.

Former classmates of the Republican nominee have let on that young Romney was something of a high school bully, targeting in particular a boy "with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye". In once incident, they recalled, Romney and his mates cut off the student's hair, after pinning him to the ground.

Mr Romney says he doesn't remember the incident but has apologised for pranks that "might have gone too far."

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