The man who President Obama listed as one of two people who influenced his ideas the most on gay rights says that today's decision to openly endorse gay marriage is a bold, but cynical move on the president's part — and he isn't sure the gay rights movement should be pushing so hard for marriage at all.
Dr. Lawrence Goldyn taught Barack Obama's European Politics class when Obama was a student at Occidental College in suburban Los Angeles in 1980. In an interview with The Advocate in 2008, Obama named him as one of two people in his life, including his mother, who had the most influence on his attitudes toward gay people.
"He was a wonderful guy,” Obama said at the time. “He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with."
In an interview from his office in rural Fort Bragg, California, where he is now a physician treating HIV and AIDS patients, Goldyn, 61, said that "I think it's very brave in a way because he risks of course alienating some right wing people who might otherwise have stayed out of the election."
Goldyn said that "I think it's probably a somewhat cynical calculation he made" but that "he's a smart politician and I don't blame him for that."
But Goldyn had never spoken to Obama himself about gay marriage, because when they knew each other, the issue wasn't even on the table.
"Same-sex marriage in 1980 was on no one's radar screen," Goldyn said. "No one's. No one even thought about it. At that point the gay movement was interested in fundamental civil rights, issues about equality in terms of the law, immigration law, family law, equality in the workplace, not being discriminated against."
"There's no way I would have discussed it" with Obama, Goldyn said.
Goldyn recalled that when the future president was a student at Occidental, he "talked to me, he hung around with me, he wanted to learn from me. He was clearly not gay. But he thought I was somebody unusual and somebody he had something to learn from."
"It's a very rare straight man who will hang out with a gay teacher in order to learn things."
Goldyn had a following of students at Occidental (he called it a "constituency"), mostly "gay men and women of color." Obama was a rare, straight male exception in that group.
"I don't see it as he was somebody who wanted to know me," Goldyn said. "He was someone who wasn't afraid of me."
Goldyn hasn't spoken to Obama since Occidental and didn't know Obama remembered him till he Googled himself a few years ago and found the Advocate article.
"I had no idea," Goldyn said. "Imagine what that's like to somebody who left teaching, to learn how much of an impact you had on that student."
Now, though he commends the president for "doing more to foster gay rights than anybody else has," he blames "the gay establishment" for forcing Obama to confront an issue whose value he disputes.
Marriage "is important but not for the reasons people think it is," said Goldyn. "I think it is a linchpin, just as sodomy laws were linchpins to opening gates to other freedoms."
"It is one of the most conservative institutions in human history," he said. "So it's hard for me to get really enthusiastic about it personally."