Playwright Tony Kushner Hails Obama’s Support for Same-Sex Marriage: “I Felt the Earth Move”

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Tony Kushner

HAVANA TIMES — In an historic announcement, President Obama has become the first U.S. president to support same-sex marriage. We get reaction from acclaimed playwright and activist Tony Kushner. In 2003, he and his partner became the first same-sex couple to appear in the Vows section of the New York Times.

“I felt the earth move,” Kushner says. “It’s one of those moments where you feel a corner being rounded and the actual change, or the groundwork for change, being prepared. It’s been astonishing to watch over the years the slow but steady progress of marriage rights and, in general, of the enfranchisement of the LGBT community. It’s at a pace that’s faster than I honestly anticipated it would be. And it’s incredibly moving.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Advocates of same-sex marriage are hailing President Obama’s decision to publicly declare his support for marriage equality, becoming the first U.S. president to do so. Obama spoke out on the issue three days after NBC aired an interview with Vice President Joe Biden saying he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Since taking office, Obama has backed civil unions for same-sex couples, but not marriage. In a moment, we’ll be joined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and longtime gay rights activist Tony Kushner, but first we turn to the President’s comments Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I had hesitated on gay marriage, in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient, that that was something that would give people hospital visitation rights and other elements that we take for granted. And I was sensitive to the fact that, for a lot of people, you know, the word “marriage” was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth. But I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed, monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is gone, because they’re not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point 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.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Obama speaking on ABC News on Wednesday.

Obama’s comments have been criticized by some proponents of same-sex marriage for essentially endorsing a “states’ rights” approach to the issue. Richard Kim of The Nation magazine writes, quote, “Obama essentially preserves the current status quo in which a handful of states recognize same-sex marriage and many states have constitutional bans against them.”

In an interview with Mother Jones magazine, an administration source said of Obama, quote, “He has always said that it is a state issue, and he’s not suggesting changing that. He did not support the North Carolina amendment, but he’s not saying he will bring up a piece of federal legislation on gay marriage.”

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is the acclaimed playwright, the screenwriter, the gay rights activist, Tony Kushner. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his landmark 1992 play, Angels in America. The play was set in New York in the midst of the 1980s when AIDS was devastating the gay community. His other plays include Homebody/Kabul, Caroline, or Change and A Bright Room Called Day. He is currently working on a screenplay for a Steven Spielberg movie about Abraham Lincoln.

Tony Kushner and his now-husband Mark Harris were the fist same-sex couple to be featured in the Vows column in the New York Times. The article was published in May of 2003, after they held a commitment ceremony. In 2008, they were legally married.

Tony Kushner, welcome back to Democracy Now!

TONY KUSHNER: Thanks. Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel today after President Obama’s announcement yesterday that he supports same-sex marriage?

TONY KUSHNER: I feel great. It was—I watched it with Mark at home in the middle of the afternoon when ABC released it, and I was—I mean, I said to Mark, you know, “I felt the earth move.” I mean, it’s one of those moments that you’ve—where you feel a corner being rounded and actual change, or the groundwork for change, being prepared. It’s been astonishing to watch over the years the slow but steady progress of marriage rights and, in general, of the enfranchisement of the LGBT community. It’s at a pace that’s faster than I honestly anticipated it would be. And it’s incredibly moving to see the President of the United States—in my opinion, a great president—becoming the first president to say that same-sex couples should be given the—should have the legal right to marry. And I’m very proud of him, if that’s not a silly thing to say. I think he’s an extraordinary man, and I’m—I feel very, very excited and very moved, so…

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the choice—his choice to do it at this particular point? Because the New York Times has a long article today about the in—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the battles within the administration, that basically this decision had been made that he was going to make the announcement sometime before the Democratic convention to avoid being seen on the wrong side of a platform issue at the Democratic convention over marriage equality. Your sense of the timing, that he chose this particular time?

TONY KUSHNER: I mean, there’s a lot that we won’t probably ever know. I mean, I don’t believe that it’s the case that Vice President Biden’s comments or Arne Duncan’s comments sort of forced the President to make this. I have a fair degree of certainty that Biden made the comments, having, you know, been given permission, at least, to speak his mind on the subject. He’s a wonderful guy and a great politician. And I suspect that it was—

AMY GOODMAN: The possibility that it was a trial balloon?

TONY KUSHNER: You know, I don’t know how these—I’ve never been—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Or an orchestrated rollout?

TONY KUSHNER: Not entirely orchestrated. It wasn’t—I wouldn’t call it a “rollout,” but it was something along those lines. I think that there’s enough coherence within the administration to make it somewhat unlikely that Obama was blindsided by Biden sort of saying, you know, off the cuff. There’s no evidence that this caused a sort of a—you know, a sort of crisis within the White House.

I think that there were people who were saying before, making analogies between Lincoln and Obama on this issue, and that he allowed other people in the administration to say things that he felt politically he couldn’t afford to say. I think there are a lot of—everything I do now is sort of filtered through Abraham Lincoln, but he’s been a very useful filter, I think, in thinking about the administration, the Obama administration. And I think that there’s a very interesting parallel between the 1864 election that Lincoln faced and the election that Obama is now moving into. I don’t think that same-sex marriage has the same prominence at all that emancipation had, obviously, in the heart of the Civil War, but it’s important for us to understand that there are issues that a progressive president may feel he has to articulate in a way that’s less than satisfactory. If Obama had said yesterday, “I’m still evolving,” I would have been completely fine with that. I don’t ask that he declare support for same-sex marriage before he goes up against Romney.

You know, you were just reporting what’s going on in Greece now, which I think is something that really bears watching, because if this all results in the Greeks rejecting the euro, we could really be facing a summer and fall—well, we probably will be facing a summer and fall of great economic tumult that’s going to have an effect on America. And during times of economic tumult, it’s hard on an incumbent. All the swing states are states that are especially economically pressed.

The only thing that matters to me right now is that he get a second term and that we, hopefully, have a shot of getting the House back. Everything that anybody who’s progressive wants is absolutely dependent on those things happening. So, he doesn’t have—I’ve always known there’s no way on earth that Barack Obama doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage. There’s never been anything in his entire record as a politician, as a scholar, that indicates that it’s conceivable that he doesn’t get that this is a 14th Amendment issue, that it’s a federal, not a state, issue. What he needs to say to get elected—he got himself elected president of the United States, and I’m willing to concede—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned Mitt Romney. I want to turn to Republican presidential candidate Romney, his response to President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage.

MITT ROMNEY: States are able to make decisions with regards to domestic partnership benefits, such as hospital visitation rights. Benefits and so forth of various kinds could be determined state by state. But my view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and woman, and that’s—that’s my own preference. I know other people have differing views. This is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues. But I have the same view that I’ve had since—well, since running for office.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to the reaction of Mitt Romney?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, I mean, you know, this guy is a nightmare. You know, he’s been made to look reasonable by, you know, the presence with him on stage during the Republican primaries of certifiably insane people. But—and he’s probably not an insane person, but he’s absolutely, you know, the same kind of puppet for the plutocracy or a member of the plutocracy that we’ve had before, and he’ll bring in the same gang of criminals.

And this sort of ersatz sensitivity to the—you know, his sort of little—you know, his condescending acknowledgment that maybe we should have hospital visitation rights, it doesn’t begin to touch. Since Mark and I have been legally married—we got married in Massachusetts; our marriage is now legally recognized in New York state—we don’t even know whether we’re legally married in the few other states that have laws permitting or court decisions that support same-sex marriage. There are dozens of things, hundreds of things, that we don’t have that a heterosexual married couple has, including recognition on a federal level. It affects our tax burden. It affects our insurance situation. It costs us a great deal of money every year, and on and on down the line.

And this idea that, you know, if we’re sort of given—I mean, Romney, of course, responded to Obama’s comments by at first saying that he supported this constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which he had said before, and then coming out a few hours later saying that he doesn’t support civil unions, because that’s too much of a threat to the institution of marriage. It’s making the choice enormously clear and again reinforcing my sense that Barack Obama is a supremely skilled politician who made this announcement because, in his opinion, it was not going to risk the election and has, in fact, I think, almost immediately pushed Romney farther to the right. And we just saw in Indiana that this—the Republican Party is still, you know, very much enthralled through its lunatic fringe, and it would be a great help, in terms of avoiding the catastrophe of a Romney presidency, if the lunatic fringe keeps insisting that he swing farther and farther to the right and isn’t quite the Etch-a-Sketch candidate that he was hoping he would be.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner is our guest. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Tony, I wanted to read a quote of yours from 2010 talking about the reaction by some in the gay rights movement to President Obama’s election. You said, “The minute they heard that Rick Warren was speaking at the inauguration, LGBT people were saying, ’It’s over, he’s just like all the others.’ Let alone those who say there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats, which I think is glib and profoundly dangerous. What frightens me is that I feel that we’re in the process of dismantling the coalition of constituencies that brought Obama to the White House.” Your response now, on this morning after President Obama made the statement that he supports same-sex marriage?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, I mean, Juan, you had mentioned, you know, Richard Kim, who I respect enormously. But, you know, immediately, I think it appeared on his blog last night, you know, that the states’ rights part of Obama’s interview meant that, you know, he was sort of reinforcing one of the particularly catastrophic aspects of the—or difficult and burdensome aspects of the struggle for marriage equality. It didn’t surprise me that the President felt that he needed to throw that in. I wish he hadn’t felt that he needed to. Again, I don’t think anyone could really argue that Obama fails to understand that this is not a state’s issue and that he’s not a states’ rightist, by any means.

You know, what worries me now is that it felt to me—and I think the evidence backs it up—that in 2008, part of what got Obama elected was a coalition that had really been forming after—almost immediately after—the 2000 election, and it didn’t succeed in getting Kerry elected, but it got—it began the process of building a very strong nationwide network of on-the-ground support for Democratic candidates, and it continued to build after 2004 all the way to 2008. The idea that we are going to be able to sort of grudgingly say, you know, in September or October, “OK, I guess it’s going to be Obama, so let’s, you know, start to support him then,” it’s not enough. It’s going to be a close election. The dangers of a Romney presidency are very real. People should take the—I think people have forgotten 1980 and the sort of way that, you know, even in the early months of 1980, the possibility of a Reagan presidency seemed like, you know, so far-fetched. It was like a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Nobody could believe that that could happen. And then, you know, cut to November. And I think we have to take it seriously. And I keep meeting people in the left, progressive people, who say, “Well, Obama is going to win. I’ll send him a check later. I’ll do something later.” This is, I think, a life-and-death struggle, not just for this country, but for the planet.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, but, Tony, some—some gay activists have criticized the movement’s focus on same-sex marriage, saying it’s sidelined issues like economic and racial justice. Transgender activist Kalil Cohen spoke on Democracy Now! in February after an appeals court struck down California’s same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8.

KALIL COHEN: Well, I’ve been active in the movement to establish same-sex marriage as a trans activist with Trans Equality L.A., which was a group here in L.A. that was advocating for marriage. But I think my biggest concern is how much resources in the LGBTQ movement have been funneled towards marriage equality alone, and away from basic survival that a lot LGBTQ people still face, such as lack of access to education, healthcare, housing and criminal justice reform. And these are issues that have really taken a backseat to marriage equality, and that has harmed the most vulnerable members of our community, and whereas marriage equality is what’s helping the people who are already doing OK, who are mostly affluent, mostly white gay and lesbian folks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was transgender activist Kalil Cohen. Your response?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, you know, I don’t disagree at all. I don’t think that the absolute apotheosis of—I mean, the most radical implications of LGBT liberation are not the right to serve openly in the military and to marry, but I guess I’ve become more of an evolutionary than revolutionary leftist over the course of the last 20 or so years. The powerlessness of the left, our inability to actually do things like stop the bombing of Baghdad, to really begin to do work, to—serious work, difficult work, to actually do something to stop the terrifying pace of climate change, and to advance our own interests—it’s become, you know, sort of unbearable to me. We have surrendered effective political power in this country, and in some sense, around the world, to the right. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Has the Occupy movement given you any hope?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, immense hope. The lack of a coherent theory behind it was both exciting and a concern. The many manifestations of a newly awakened concern about economic justice all through the Arab Spring—there was a very good article by Joseph Stiglitz about the economic underpinnings of a lot of the unrest in the countries involved in the Arab Spring. I mean, it’s wonderful to see. I mean, ultimately, economic inequality and the vast concentration of wealth at the top of the pyramid, the creation of a plutocracy, is one of the most profoundly anti-democrat—threats to democracy here and everywhere. So I’m very excited and turned on by movements like Occupy Wall Street.

Again, the question is, can this—can progress and genuine radical progress be accomplished through electrical—electoral democracy? “Electrical democracy.” And I think the answer is yes. Not with coal plants, but, you know, people-powered electrical democracy. I think that it’s very important to remember that more radical changes were envisioned at the beginnings of the LGBT movement, but I don’t think that marriage equality will prevent those from ultimately being attained, and I don’t think that it’s an accident that we focused on service in the military and marriage. I think that those were the most immediately attainable political goals and goals that were absolutely attainable within electoral politics. And I think we’re seeing the evidence of that now with, you know, a majority of Americans supporting same-sex marriage and the President, you know, announcing it.

So, I think that—I mean, the question for us is, you know, how do we envision a path to achieving what we want? How are transgender people going to get justice and full enfranchisement and an end to discrimination and, you know, basic necessities for survival? And I think the answer is, you know, sort of step by step and that there’s a—you have to develop a certain kind of patience with the pace of change possible in a democracy. And it doesn’t mean that it has to be glacial, but it isn’t immediate either. And we have to ask ourselves the source of our own—about the source of our own impatience and whether—as I’ve been saying for a while now, it comes with a certain comfort with powerlessness. It’s very nice to have no power: you have no responsibility for all the things that go wrong, and you don’t have to make terrible compromises. And we’ve been powerless, in a way, for a very long time now. And we don’t want to just be critics, we also want to be creators.

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