Dropping Obama's pedestal a notch (but keeping him enthroned)

Xtra!; January 2009

In the month leading up to the recent US election I found myself south of the border for a conference in Indiana. I spent my evening hours in wine-sipping political hopefulness with my queer American friends, absorbing their joy-in-waiting as though breathing it in through my pores.

Barack Obama has to win. Obama is the future. Obama is on our side.

I read The Advocate so by this time I'd seen the queer take on each of the candidates, friend or foe or too-early-to-know. With Obama and Hillary Clinton competing for first prize in the race for the queer vote it was easy for me to cheer them both on from my dull Canadian politically agnostic armchair. Just so long as one of them wins, I thought, I'll be happy.

It wasn't until that weekend in Indiana that I realized I was being duped. Or that I’d been duping myself.

My friends were praising the Democratic presidential candidates. Both had publicly declared their support for civil unions, after all. It wasn't mentioned in our discussions that Obama and Clinton defined marriage as a contract between one man and one woman, and I brushed the thought aside out of respect for the importance of the election of one or the other over the Republican alternative.

Afterward in my hotel room, still pumped on the Democratic hopefuls, I browsed through the usual sites for an update on Canadian news, where an election of our own was looming. Checking the queer take on Xtra.ca I found a compilation of freshly recruited statements from each of the Canadian candidates, save one, on queer issues. The trend was obvious: each one competing to appear the most queer-friendly. Truly. We're talking marriage, adoption, legal protections all written in stone like they are for everyone else. Cards laid out on the table for a queer Canadian future. Aces, all of them.

I looked back at the hand the US was holding and all I saw was Jacks at best. The most progressive candidate would not support even one of the major queer issues our Canadian candidates were tripping over each other to top.

That's when it hit me: in the matters that matter to me, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is more progressive than Obama — even if it's only because the short arm of his law is twisted behind his back by the Canadian constitution. Despite his half-assed efforts to the contrary we still have gay marriage and our human rights are protected in a meaningful way by the government that he leads.

In fact, I doubt that Obama would stand a chance of being elected in Canada; he would be seen as too conservative and too religious — even by Harper standards — if he ran that campaign north of the border.

How humbling when I realized that our Canadian conservative posterboy — the nit we just can't seem to pick — is decades ahead of this progressive American icon I've been laying down the palm leaves for.

Let's be perfectly clear: Obama is shouldering my hopes along with the hopes of millions of others. Here is a man who has demonstrated that he can break barriers, suffer slings and arrows and experiment with truth and integrity. But he's also a politician so I remain wary. His stance on queer issues is halfway to the right, halfway to the left, in this Canadian's opinion. I'm eager for him to show us which leg he's leaning on.

I'll acknowledge that queer America is unlikely to see a presidential Paul Martin anytime soon. I think the country's belly would heave at the thought of swallowing so much medicine at once. If a US president actually flicked the switch on same-sex marriage like Martin did in Canada, I don't doubt that popular opinion would preside in the US — it is a democracy, after all — and we would see a national rebellion to restore the status quo that would demote California's Proposition Eight to a footnote in the history books.

Or would it?

Now is the time to test Obama's integrity. Ask him for straight answers on straightforward questions. Demand that the testimonies of our American brothers and sisters (and siblings of every other gender) are heard and that their needs are met. Be grateful for change but refuse to be satisfied with compromise.

I believe that Obama won the election because he modeled integrity for a thirsty country. This is our opportunity to expect better from someone like him.