Earnest Hemenway – An Interview on Obama’s Support of Same-Sex Couples

I spoke with government teacher David Hemenway about President Obama’s historical statement during an interview last Wednesday that it was “important for [him]…to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Hemenway has taught many classes of students with varying views on same-sex marriage over the years, and thus provided quite a bit of insight on this current event.

Friestad: Good day, Mr. Hemenway, thank you very much for sitting down to do this interview for valor-dictus.com.

Hemenway: It’s a pleasure.

Friestad: Alright, so, do you think Obama’s revelation of his support for same-sex marriage was a smart decision for his campaign?

Hemenway: It depends how you look at it; there’s been a lot of debate about it already. I don’t believe he made the decision for political reasons, because there were some preliminary events, such as Vice President Biden’s interview on Meet the Press [during which he voiced his support for same-sex marriage], which probably set the timetable back, but this particular point of view was already going to be in the Democratic National Convention’s platform, so it was inevitable that Obama would be reading the platform.

To answer your question, I think, while it is political to a certain extent, I don’t think Obama was necessarily acting politically. I think he’s made it clear that same-sex marriage is a civil matter, not a religious matter, so that’s the key; you have to separate the two.

Friestad: Do you think Obama’s comment will have any impact on voters in the upcoming election? Could it draw in supporters or alienate potential ones?

Hemenway: There may be some voters that may not vote for him because of this, but I doubt it will be a significant number. His revelation might motivate his party’s base that wants to see a more active president in a lot of things that they support. Those opposed to gay marriage are most likely going to stay that way, and I don’t think this will have much of a change on who they’ll vote for. It’s part of his platform, it’s part of his campaign to a certain extent, but as long as the economy remains the major problem out there, I don’t see his belief becoming a significant issue for voters.

Friestad: Do you think this event will shape Obama’s legacy in any way? Personally, I could see this contributing to his legacy as a progressive president, but it might also give his opponents fodder for claiming he’s a flip-flopper, due to the evolution of his views on same-sex marriage.

Hemenway: I don’t see Obama as a flip-flopper on this issue because he never really retreated from the idea of civil unions. He may have backed off a bit about marriage, per se, but I don’t see him flip-flopping like someone would on abortion, for example, where they become pro-choice, then they become pro-life; it’s not that extreme. He backed off a little bit, but I don’t think he ever went to the point where the fairness issue was ever questioned.

The whole thing here is, if you think about it, the decision to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was pretty much a signal to where he was heading eventually, because it’s a logical next step. I think as a progressive president, for him, supporting same-sex marriage would be a logical progression. Also, I think political surveys and the direction of the public view have accelerated this issue, mainly because certain states, such as California, New Hampshire and Massachusetts are adopting gay marriage legislation.

The thing is, and the president was very clear on this, he still thinks this is a state’s rights situation because marriage, per se, and the license thereof, is regulated by the states. That kind of opens the door here; Obama says, basically, “My view is what it is,” but he’s not saying, “Okay, Virginia, your view must be this,” because a state is a state is a state. Instead, he sees acceptance of same-sex marriage as an evolutionary process for the country, and all of its 50 states.

Friestad: Even though Obama is leaving legislature on same-sex marriage in the hands of the states, his opinion is undeniably a big one. Do you think his expression of that opinion will give gay rights advocate groups enough momentum to eventually achieve their cause?

Hemenway: I think you’ll see some trends in certain states that will soon see the integration of same-sex marriage. There will be certain states where it may take a very long time, but there is one element of the Constitution, the Full Faith Credit Clause, which basically says that, if you’re married in one state and move to another state, it has to recognize that marriage [the Clause requires each state to recognize and respect the laws of other states]. Some states have legalization for gay marriage in their Constitutions, but are under the Defense of Marriage Act [a 1996 Supreme Court ruling defining marriage as between a man and a woman], which may trump that legislature.

Now, that would be a Supreme Court decision, and who knows, but if you go back in time during the civil rights movement, Brown vs.  Board of Education [required integration of races in public schools] was a fundamental earthquake that basically sent the nation toward civil rights, and it wasn’t a politician, Congress or the president behind this, it was the Court. The court seemed to have that ability to step back, look at the Constitution, and decide what is or is not constitutional. That’s where you can see the progression of civil rights.

Friestad: Today [May 17] is actually the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education verdict in unanimous support of integration in public schools. Based on historical precedent, do you believe that, like segregation, controversy over same-sex marriage will eventually become an issue of the past?

Hemenway: Yes, I do. Again, there will always be a situation where, maybe because of some religions and how they are interpreted, not everyone in the country is gonna go, “Oh, I believe this,” but I think as a whole, society will find the controversy to be, you know, “What were we talking about?” because so much change has occurred, compared to say, the 1950s, 60s. The same type of thing happened with African American integration and mixed marriages, and things that people thought were never going to happen.

Basically, it’s a matter of tolerance, a matter of acceptance, and it’s a matter of states legalizing same-sex marriage until it becomes just another institution. Already, some conservatives are saying, it offers some stability, it offers home life for kids who otherwise may not have one, and so on. In the long run, I think gay marriage will just be another one of our steps toward fairness.

Friestad: Have you overheard any of your students discussing Obama’s comment on same-sex marriage? Do you feel it is important that they are aware of this current event?

Hemenway: I’ve brought it up; I like to bring up any controversial issue I can find. I’ve seen students discuss it, and I’ve seen other students kind of sit back, but they sit back anyway, so it’s hard to differentiate between someone who’s comfortable discussing same-sex marriage with someone who’s not. I’ve found that, recently, there has been far more tolerance here at Robinson; where we do have the big discussion is Model Congress, where this year, I think every one of the students groups passed some sort of legislation on gay marriage in the Congress, so it’s a federal law. So these are Robinson students, whereas a few years ago, students would just say, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” I think the past few classes of students have shown the most growth in their tolerance.

Friestad: Very interesting. Is there anything else you’d like to comment on for this interview?

Hemenway: I don’t think so, I just think it’s great to be able to discuss these issues. I’ve been here awhile, so I’ve seen people’s stances change on a lot of issues, and it kind of surprises me, but it’s great to see these students evolve. It has to show there’s a lot more tolerance out there on this particular issue than there used to be, because high school students do tend to hold back until they’re sure on mainstream situations.

Friestad: Alright, Mr. Hemenway, thank you very much for your time today. We at valor-dictus.com appreciate your input.

Hemenway: Well, anytime. I’ve talked to you guys a few times over the years, and it’s always a lot of fun.