A Flicker, But No Beacon of Hope

Obama has finally announced his support for same-sex marriage. But as the fierce conservative opposition shows, the West is no longer the prime champion of equality and democratic progress.

Last week was full of dramatic twists and turns for LGBT rights around the world. US Vice President Joseph Biden kicked off the roller coaster ride on Monday by stating that he is now “absolutely comfortable” with homosexuals having the same rights as straight folk. He credited his change of heart to the popular American television series “Will & Grace.” Disheartening as it may be that a high ranking official’s political opinion on an important social issue is based on a ‘90s sitcom that reiterates male gay stereotypes, his words did have an unexpectedly significant impact.

When North Carolina banned same-sex marriages by passing an amendment on Tuesday, Obama also finally came out on gay marriage. Now that you can marry your cousin but not your partner in the Tar Heel State, the US president to the euphoria of many expressed his approval of same-sex marriage. This is a historical moment, we are told, Obama is the first sitting president to explicitly endorse gay marriage. Although he emphasized the fact that this was a personal view four times in one breath — “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married” — his words were greeted by many as a terrific victory, in the United States and in Europe.

In Germany, Volker Beck from the Greens called for Chancellor Angela Merkel to take a leaf out of Obama’s book and bring gay civil rights up to par. Foreign minister Westerwelle welcomed Obama’s words as “a courageous step,” adding in English that “it’s okay to marry gay.” Obama also made front pages in France, where newly elected President Hollande made promises to his gay electorate during his campaign. The French newspaper Liberation enthusiastically announced that Obama is not only the first black president, he is also gay, suggesting Obama’s bold move may be linked to his ethnicity.

Is this a sign for growing tolerance for homosexuality throughout the world? Unfortunately, same-sex marriage continues to be a matter of state law in the United States. Obama can comfortably express his highly personal opinions without having to act upon them. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s past as a bully in prep-school came to haunt him on Thursday, when the Washington Post published a detailed account of how he picked on a younger classmate for appearing to be gay. When asked about allegations that he pinned the boy down and forcefully cut his hair, Romney gave a hearty chuckle and said he certainly couldn’t remember the incident. Clearly, it won’t be okay to marry gay or wear your hair too long if Romney gets his way.

The winds of change may be blowing, but they are coming from the city of Fair Winds more than anywhere else: while the stronghold of liberal democracy gets its knickers in a twist about marriage, Argentina went ahead and set a new world standard in gender laws on Wednesday. By allowing citizens to change their legal and physical gender identity without having to undergo judicial or medical procedures, Argentina is the first country so far to embrace gender self-determination to such an extent. Argentinians can choose to change their gender without having to go through as many procedural hurdles and their health insurances are now under the obligation to cover the transition. In Europe and the United States, mental and physical examinations have to be conducted before sex-change can begin, and a long judicial process undergone before it can be recognized by the state.

The disparity in attitudes towards LGBT rights as displayed in recent days is indeed a marker of change: the idea that liberal democratic progress is pioneered solely by the United States and Europe is increasingly challenged not only by the financial crisis, but also that of basic civil rights.

Read more in this column Anna Polonyi: The Iron Curtain’s Comeback

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