Burman: Obama’s support for gay marriage helps the cause of international human rights

Many of Obama’s supporters in the U.S. and abroad believe that, on the issue of marriage equality, he is on the “right side of history,” and I believe they are right, writes Tony Burman.

So what is the world to make of Barack Obama’s historic endorsement of same-sex marriage? Beyond the borders of the United States and the vagaries of its presidential politics, what will the global impact of his statement be? Is this about sex? Is it about religion? Is it about politics, or power? Or is it about human rights, and the slow, tortuous path to expanding them?

There is no consensus in the U.S. about whether the president’s statements will affect November’s election, and there is public suspicion that his view was motivated more by politics than by principle. But in spite of this, Obama’s position has provoked considerable debate abroad — even in parts of the world where homosexuality is illegal and gay marriage unthinkable. Even though Obama’s presidency has been disappointing overall to many people outside of the U.S., the words of America’s first black president still have power. And they have added power when directed to such a controversial and explosive global issue as marriage equality.

READ MORE: Obama’s same-sex marriage declaration drives donations to both parties

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Since then, full marriage equality has been introduced in 10 countries worldwide, including Canada, Belgium and Spain. The leaders of both France and Britain have also expressed support. Even in Latin America, the world’s most Catholic region, Argentina has legalized same-sex unions and there have been moves in Brazil and Mexico in that direction. According to Margarita Corral of the Latin America Public Opinion Project, Obama’s widely publicized intervention matters: “It is going to place the issue on the agenda and will generate a debate in Latin America and around the world.”

In many countries, however, homosexuality is illegal, even though it is clearly practised. Same-sex relations are criminalized in more than 70 countries, including five where the death penalty can be applied. The countries with the harshest penalties are the Middle East and Africa. Even in Kenya, where Obama’s father was born and his popularity is immense, the president’s statements caused controversy.

When I worked with Al Jazeera English in Qatar, I was always surprised by how like-minded the English and Arabic journalistic teams were on so many political and social issues — with one notable exception, and that was the issue of gay and women’s rights.

The English-language channel of Al Jazeera had a staff of more than 1000 people, drawn from 50 nationalities. For many of us on the English side, gay and women’s issues were not issues solely of sex or religion, but of fundamental human rights, plain and simple. More often than not, many of our Arab colleagues saw these issues from a distinctly religious — and different — perspective.

READ MORE: Obama’s backing for same-sex marriage called historic, risky

Many of Obama’s supporters in the U.S. and abroad believe that, on the issue of marriage equality, he is on the “right side of history,” and I believe they are right. And they are right not only in the American context, but beyond. I think the reason is that, as this 21st century proceeds, more and more people are beginning to see this as a human rights issue, and that view will ultimately win out. Perhaps that is why polls in the U.S. now indicate that more Americans favour the notion of marriage equality than do not.

For many, this issue is no longer one solely of religious belief or discomfort. I was struck by how much attention, both in the U.S. and international media, was devoted in the past week to the number “1138.” In the U.S., that is the number of federal rights and benefits which are specifically related to civil marriage.

In other words, by denying the right of gays and lesbians to marry, they are adversely affected in the areas of social security, housing and food stamps, veterans’ benefits, taxation, employment benefits and related laws, financial disclosure and conflict of interest, etc., etc.

Conflicts in the world are often portrayed as religious disputes, when, in fact, they are really about power, or land, or money. During the 1980s when I was part of the CBC team covering the civil war in Lebanon, we made it to a  remote village in the north where hundreds had been massacred. We asked the militia people who were responsible why they did it. They cited a similar “massacre” inflicted on their ancestors decades ago, and they “wanted their land back.”

A lesson for me in all of this is that using one’s religion as a way of smothering someone else’s rights is, in the long sweep of history, a losing strategy.

Tony Burman, former head of Al Jazeera English and CBC News, teaches journalism at Ryerson University. tony.burman@gmail.com



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