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In N.C., a step backward from progress

Published on -5/16/2012, 12:40 PM

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So apparently, Barack Obama is finally done evolving.

That, you will recall, was the president's word for the process of reconsidering his opposition to same-sex marriage. Earlier this month, after being publicly and inadvertently (?) prodded by his vice president, Obama announced the results of all that cogitation. He told ABC News he has "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."

It was a historic statement from a historic president, a moment of political courage from an administration that has provided fewer such moments than you would like. And the timing was serendipity itself.

Obama's statement came a day after North Carolina enacted an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. This, on top of a law already on the books that does the same thing. No one will ever accuse the state of excessive subtlety.

In the context of that dispiriting defeat, Obama's embrace of marriage equality offers not just a rebuke to one state's atavistic backwardness, but also a bracing reminder that progress will not be denied, that change comes, come what may.

It is an irrefutable truth from which, pardon the tautology, conservative Republicans have long been in full flight. The amendment, placed on the ballot by Republican state legislators, is only the latest in a series of recent efforts to turn back progress. In this case, the Grand Old Party went after progress that is still in the making. Alarmingly, however, they have also sought to turn back progress that was made decades ago.

Who would have thought that in 2012, we would be debating a woman's access to contraception? Or re-litigating the merits of the Civil Rights Act? Or fighting to prevent a key provision of the Voting Rights Act from being repealed?

In "B-Movie," his scalpel-sharp skewering of the Reagan revolution, the late, great Gil Scott-Heron derided what he saw as a tendency "not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards." That song was released in 1981, and the tendency has only grown more pronounced since then.

Hence, the re-election slogan that Team Obama has been test-driving in recent days: "Forward," they say. The implied suggestion, of course, is that the other party will take us in the other direction. But that is not simply the choice that frames the balloting in November. It is also the choice that frames this era.

Some of us strain toward a mythic past of perceived tranquility and stark moral choices when, to quote Scott-Heron again, "movies were in black and white and so was everything else" -- in other words, the proverbial "good old days." They don't seem to know -- more likely, they just don't care -- that some of us never had good old days.

For the nation's gay and lesbian citizens, this is as close to good old days as they have ever come. And the idea that they can be turned back from the threshold of freedom by a state constitutional amendment or by 50 state constitutional amendments misreads human nature. You will as easily return women to the kitchen as you will return gay people to the closet, to the days when their sexual orientation was regarded as both a mental disorder and an indictable crime.

Let those who need to do so finally get it through their heads that gay people are not going to go back there -- would you? The president has embraced this. By contrast, North Carolina embraces only the stubborn intransigence of those who desperately need to wake up and smell the 21st century.

We have seen it before, the mulishness of those who think that by sheer obstinacy, they can turn back the tide of change. Those people ended up on the wrong side of history.

They are about to have company.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com

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