Barack Obama's bold endorsement of gay marriage has been picked threadbare for its motives (savvy electoral calculation?) and its possible outcomes (political suicide?). But there is no denying that the U.S. President has been on the right side of gay rights for quite a while now. He has backed legislation that upholds the principle that the federal government should give gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protection as heterosexual ones. He was instrumental in the repeal of the ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law that barred openly gay and bisexual people from the U.S. armed forces. His presidency, in fact, has been marked by a consistent and muscular support for sexual minorities, reflected in his campaign for equal treatment for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders all over the world. It was only on same sex marriage that he had staked out a somewhat ambivalent position, maintaining his opinions were “evolving”. He was criticised for being indecisive and vacillating; in contrast, Mitt Romney, his Republican rival in the 2012 election, is clear and unequivocal in his opposition to gay marriage and is likely to mount a divisive campaign on this issue.

In strict terms, the step from supporting equal rights for gay couples to endorsing same sex marriage is a small one. The hesitation in taking this stems entirely from the fact that people continue to view marriage as a sacrament, something performed by a religious body and, ipso facto, not a function of the state. Even if same sex marriage becomes law, it is unlikely that the church, which is autonomous in religious matters, will be persuaded to marry gay couples; civil unions may continue to be the only option for them. But there is a real victory for the gay movement here. It lies in having a government on its side, one that is willing to send the signal that it is opposed to any discriminatory policy on the basis of sexual orientation. The President's endorsement comes at a time when there is mounting American opinion in favour of same sex marriage, confirmed by a recent survey that showed 50 per cent in favour of it. At a time when globally, there is growing acceptance that sexual minorities must be accorded equal rights, it is truly shameful that the Indian government is unable to take a firm position on decriminalising homosexuality. Although the Delhi High Court held Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to be unconstitutional insofar as it criminalised consensual homosexual acts, an indecisive Centre remains in the thrall of moral obscurantists and arch-conservatives who are opposed to the change.

More In: Editorial | Opinion