Southeast Asia | Obama's evolution of marriage and sexuality: An Asian perspective

Obama’s evolution of marriage and sexuality: An Asian perspective

June 30, 2015 10:24 AM (UTC+8)

 

During the re-election cycle in 2012, President Obama sent seismic shock waves through the news media when he became the first American president to publicly support marriage equality. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court sided with the president’s views in a 5-4 decision, sending a ruling “like a thunderbolt” through American society in favor of marriage equality in all 50 states[1].

As the longtime advisor, David Axelrod revealed in his recent book[2] that candidate-Obama was in favor of same-sex marriage (when running for the US Senate[3]) before he was against it (while running for the Presidency[4]), and then he did a U-turn when he gently sent VP Biden to make it public that his views on marriage equality have “evolved” in support of transforming the institution of marriage.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family … In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. … Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right,” Justice Kennedy wrote.[5]

Obama called the plaintiff Jim Obergefell to congratulate him on the making of history. Can we say Obama is the first ‘African-American-Biracial-Pacific-Hawaiian-Multicultural President,’ who pushed forward gay marriage or marriage equality?  How much more evidence do we need of Obama’s hybrid identity? His political identity cannot be hybridized any further; the debate has truly been had.  It is now undeniable Obama is the harbinger of the cultural changes that will sweep America in the 21st century, as I have argued ad-nauseam in my two books on the president.

Post-structural anthropologist and philosopher, Michele Foucault, pioneered what was known in the 1970s and 80s as “Queer Theory” on college campuses, with his landmark volumes about the “History of Sexuality.”[6]  Obama was an undergraduate at Occidental College and Columbia University during this period.

Michele Foucault argued that in the West sexuality was not “repressed,” as it has been often argued, rather it was “socially constructed and monitored”, the object of “fixation” throughout the 17th and 18th century.  Sexual transgressions had to be confessed, studied and analyzed, and hence “controlled” and “punished”, which over time led to restrictions in the judicial system, pedagogy, hygiene, public health, medicine and shaped psychiatry and various forms of the modern “talking cures.”

Anything that deviated from the “natural” heterosexual lifestyle was seen as an impediment to the reproduction of “the traditional family,” “race,” and “species,” invariably classified as “perverse,” “abnormal,” “hedonistic,” and “deviant.”

However, desires often considered “biological” or “natural” are conditioned by societal constraints, cultural context, and historical dynamics.  While in the East (especially South Asia) sex was eroticized and made into an art form, to be kept secretive and mysterious, “Ars erotica”, the West turned it into a “Scientia sexualis,” with its obsession for confession, analysis and control.

Homosexuality was part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association till it was yanked out of DSM-II in the early 1970s.[7]  “Coming out” then was seen as a form of “socially constructed” confessional process, which some therapists still try to push as a psychological treatment or conversion therapy.[8]

“Social constructionism” as an idea was au courant during the time Obama was the president of the Harvard Law Review, as described by James Kloppenberg in “Reading Obama”; it was one of the legal theories of choice for scholarship. “Kuhn and Geertz were but two home-grown intellectual revolutionaries writing at a time when the ideas of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and various theorists of race, class, gender, and post-colonialism on both sides of the Atlantic were throwing more monkey wrenches … The challenges posed by the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, and the antiwar and student movements caused many American intellectuals to conclude that the idea of a universal human nature had been routed,” according to Kloppenberg.[9]

Obama’s former mentor at Harvard, constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe, partly credited Obama for coming up with the analogy that interpreting the constitution is like a “conversation.”  Thus, it was not a quantum leap for Obama to come out in favor same-sex marriage as he has supported the view that all social institutions are context-specific, mutable and evolving.  Obama said in an interview on May 9, 2012, “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.”

Genealogically, from his paternal side of the family, Obama belongs to Luo tribesmen who practice polygamy in Kenya, Africa; both his father and grandfather practiced polygamy. Obama’s decision to support marriage equality may have also been shaped by his own early childhood experiences in Indonesia, where his stepfather hired a gay cook to work in the house and where alternative lifestyles were not uncommon. Indonesia has neither developed a law banning homosexuality until recently (only in Aceh), nor any civil protections against discrimination.

Lolo Soetoro did not have a “gay nanny” as it has been reported in NYT[10] and in the fictionalized Indonesian film about his boyhood, “Little Obama.” When I interviewed Obama’s male nanny, Pak Saman, in 2009 he was a happily married man[11]. But Obama’s stepfather did hire a gay cook, named Trudi, who used to work in the Soetoro household when the young Obama lived on Dempo Street in Jakarta[12]. Whether Trudi evolved into a gay nanny or some other role is not clear; however, Obama was exposed to fluid gender roles from a very young age while living in his stepfather’s house in Indonesia.

His mother, Ann Dunham, decided to live and work in Indonesia for all her adult life, as I argued in my book, partly because Indonesia has a “matrifocal kinship structure, where women have significant amount of power over men in the domestic world. Women’s status tends to be higher in Indonesia compared to other patriarchal Asian countries. Even infant mortality and nutritional indicators tends to be better for young girls than boys. The sex-role differentiation between Indonesian boys and girls is not that clearly demarcated or rigidly drawn in early childhood (Megawangi, 1997). For all these reasons, Alice Dewey, Ann’s mentor and colleague, told me that Ann may have felt more at home in Indonesian culture; she felt more empowered as a woman there.”[13]  Thus, Obama’s formative years (ages 6-11 years) spent in Indonesia were indelibly shaped by his mother’s early conditioning.

Obama’s outstanding support for marriage equality opened the donor’s floodgates in 2012, accumulating several millions in a few days, capping it off with a $15 million fund raiser in Hollywood at George Clooney’s house. Will it do the same for the democrats and Hillary Clinton in 2016? Will the donors gather again in big numbers in support of marriage equality? Or, will there be a cultural backlash?

”America is weeping,” the conservatives are opining now in 2015. The religious right-wing groups immediately issued a response: “Obama had shaken his fist at God”, said the angered Franklin Graham in 2012 prior to the re-election, the son of Billy Graham, a preacher and adviser to many presidents.  He lamented, “It’s a sad day for America.” After the Supreme Court ruling, Franklin Graham said, “I believe God could bring judgment upon America.”

“Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman,” Romney told a group of gatherers without mentioning a word about his Mormon faith, yet drawing a sharp contrast with “the faith of his forefathers,” who had a complicated yet fascinating history of polygamy. Many of the conservative candidates will replay the conservative narrative on marriage again in the primaries and the 2016 general election.

In the 2012 general election, we had two candidates with a long family history of polygamy, who held diametrically opposite views of sex and marriage. Romney was for the traditional marriage and extolled “high monogamy,” while Obama was open to the “evolving” views of marriage and sexuality. Patriarchal notions of marriage and sexuality seems to be shaking loose at the roots under Obama, now that marriage equality has been made law of the land and potentially we may have a woman candidate seriously vying for the highest office in the land.  Will there be a backlash or a retrenchment of diversity against the first woman candidate on the democratic ticket?

As we approach another election year, where economy, jobs and global security may have been the dominant issues, and culture wars could have receded into the background, Supreme Court’s decision supporting Obama’s stance on core cultural issues – marriage, family and sexual orientation – will motivate key segments of the American electorate for or against cultural change.

This landmark decision, deeply shaped by three liberal women justices – including President Obama’s two key appointments (Justice Kagan and Sotomayor) – reflects the president’s transformation of policy on marriage and sexuality.

Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at Binghamton University’s Institute for Global Cultural Studies in Binghamton, N.Y. He is the editor of “The Global Obama: Crossroads of Leadership in the 21st Century,” published by Routledge Press. His previous book, “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,” was rated as the Top Ten Black History Book for 2012.

[1] Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. CNN Politics, June 27, 2015.

[2] Axelrod, David. (2015). Believer: My forty years in politics. New York: Penguin.

[3] Obama Once Supported Same-Sex Marriage.

[4] Obama Says Adviser ‘Confused’ on Marriage Equality ‘Evolution’.

[5] Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. CNN Politics, June 27, 2015.

[6] Foucault, Michele. (1978). The History of Sexuality. New York: Random House.

[7] Spitzer, Robert. (1973). Homosexuality and Sexual Orientation Disturbance:

Proposed Change in DSM-II, 6th Printing, page 44. APA Document Reference No. 730008.

[8] Gay Conversion Therapy Is A Fraud, New Jersey Jury Says. HuffPost, June 25, 2015.

[9] Kloppenberg, James. (2010). Reading Obama. New Jersey: Princeton Press.

[10] Onishi, Norimitsu. Obama visits a nation that knew him as Barry, New York Times, November 8, 2010. Accessed on December 3, 2010.

[11] Sharma, Dinesh. (2012). Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia. Connecticut: Praeger.

[12] Obama, Barack. (1995). Dreams From My Father. New York: Three Rivers Press.

[13] Sharma, Dinesh. (2012). Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia. Connecticut: Praeger.

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