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On May 9, 2012, news broke with a quote from President Barack Obama on his stand towards marriage equality. For many years, although he supported civil rights for the LGBTQ community, he held the view that marriage for same-sex couples was against his personal beliefs. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage,” he said in 2008.
And then, in 2012, he stated, “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue.” During an interview with ABC News he said, “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.”
Uh-oh. He flipped. He’s inconsistent.
We can prove it. “Evolution?” Isn’t that just a euphemism for a lack of conviction? Doesn’t that make you weak and shifty? Where’s your backbone?
We’ve all heard this school of thought: Public leaders must maintain consistent positions. To change is to be suspicious and untrustworthy. Real leaders, the thought goes, have had the same positions on any given issue since they first went public. To some, it’s even important to know what positions they held as students in college. A philosophy that praises long-standing views and criticizes change is most often associated with conservatism. But people across the political spectrum, including liberals and progressives, can also be resistant to “evolution” among public figures, even when they change to take up a position we want them to hold.
I’m sure you’ve heard the critiques of public figures who are less liberal than we’d prefer. They announce a more liberal position, change their talking points, or respond to criticism by “clarifying” their stand. Quite often they are met with charges of being disingenuous, criticized for taking too long, reminded of their previous positions, and told they haven’t done enough.
While it’s healthy to be a critical thinker and to distinguish between empty talk and real action, it’s self-defeating to greet newcomers with hostility. Instead, we need to acknowledge the difficulty of their journey. At some level they had to be willing to listen to people with whom they disagree, take in new information, consider different points of view, and challenge their own basic assumptions in life. When someone finally comes around to publicly supporting gay and trans rights, it’s nearly certain that they have also had to break ranks with important people in their life – a religious leader, a mentor, a respected community leader, or even their own family. Rather than showing weakness, “evolution” takes courage.
Let’s celebrate those who shift, no matter what their journey looks like: small steps, big steps, coming late in life, or after working against us for many years. After all, when they shift towards us, we are winning.
To all the Flip-Floppers, Johnny-Come-Latelies, and Evolvers on LGBTQ rights: I want to sing your praises. I don’t care how long it has taken you to arrive or how you got here. Welcome.
(Stephanie White is the executive director of Michigan Equality. Her column appears monthly.)