Why gay marriage won't hurt Obama

Independent voters are more concerned about the economy.

The big news is that President Barack Obama is coming out in favor of gay marriage. The bigger news is that few people, not even the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, preoccupied as he is by more pressing material concerns, seem to care much.

It all started on Sunday when Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's Meet the Press that he was comfortable with "men marrying men [and] women marrying women" and that gay couples "are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties."

Then shortly afterward Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, was asked on a news show on MSNBC whether he supports same-sex marriage. He said yes and that he'd never been publicly asked that before.

It was awkward. Their boss's official position had been "evolving." Obama had previously supported civil unions, pushed for repeal of the Pentagon's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, and ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. But because this is an election year, Obama had been cagey about where he stands on gay marriage.

Until now. After three days of intense questioning by the White House press corps, Obama chose to announce his views not during a press briefing but during an interview with an ABC News reporter. Part of the interview was released last night but most of it will be aired on today's Good Morning America.

"In the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated," the president said.

Now the pundits are turning their attention to the politics of Obama's coming out. Will it hurt him with coveted independent voters? With African-Americans, who tend to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage?

The honest answer is no one knows. But the educated guess is probably not. Polls show independent voters are more concerned about the economy and other material concerns. Black voters, too, tend to vote with their pocketbooks, not on social issues. Indeed, social issues are less important this year than they were in 2004 when "Gays, Guns and God" superseded even the Iraq War. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, just 28 percent said they cared about gay marriage. Respondents were concerned instead with the economy (86 percent), jobs (84 percent), deficits (74 percent), and health care (74 percent).

Even Mitt Romney doesn't care. Well, he does, but not much. In an interview in Colorado, a reporter asked Romney about gay marriage, in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and medical marijuana. He told the reporter that he opposes all of these, but then, when she challenged him, he pushed back:

"Aren't there issues of significance that you'd like to talk about: the economy, the growth of jobs, the need to put people back to work ... there are enormous challenges that we face," Romney said.

In 1996, when the US economy was the best it had been, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) sailed through Congress and was signed by Bill Clinton, a Democrat. It defined marriage as between a man and a woman. It therefore does not recognize the validity of gay marriage in the six states and District of Columbia that legalized it. Though some states are banning it (most recently North Carolina), resistance has waned. A new Gallup poll shows that half of Americans (52 percent) believe same-sex marriage should be legal. More importantly, for Obama's re-election chances: 57 percent of independents support legalization. Only 22 percent of Republicans do.

Some of those Republicans really, really want gay marriage to be a wedge issue, probably because Republicans do so poorly when bread-and-butter issues, like jobs and health care, are at stake. Brian Brown, of the National Organization for Marriage, said: "President Obama has now made the definition of marriage a defining issue in the presidential contest."

Maybe. Well, probably not. Actually, no.

Even Shepard Smith, a Fox News anchor, suggested the GOP would lose this one. He asked a reporter:

"I am curious whether you believe in this time of rising debt and medical issues and all the rest, if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue while sitting very firmly without much question on the wrong side of history."

New York City Clerks Offices opened its first Sunday for Gay Marriages, Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.