Barack Obama returned back to his 1996 view on same-sex marriage last week, but this time he did so as president of the United States. In an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, Obama confirmed that he has "evolved" on the issue and personally backs same-sex marriage. While he said the issue is for the states to handle, which disappointed some, the fact is that Obama can't regulate what states do, and it will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal district courts to decide the application of federal laws that force states to recognize other states' contracts, including on marriage.
Obama's revolution back to his 1996 view, stated in a response to an Outlines newspaper candidate questionnaire (Outlines purchased and merged with Windy City Times in 2000), was part personal and part practical. In 1996, when he was first running for the Illinois state senate, Obama said he would support same-sex marriage and fight any efforts to limit it; this was in light of the then-new plans for "defense of marriage" state and federal laws.
At the core, Obama actually never changed his view that same-sex couples should have the same rights and benefits as those given to opposite-sex couples. What changed after 1996 was a slow move away from the word "marriage." In 1998, again surveyed by Outlines, he took no position on the topic of same-sex marriage. In 2004, when he was running for U.S. Senate, Obama told me in an interview for Windy City Times that he supported civil unions and all the benefits and rights of marriage for LGBT couples, but not the use of the word "marriage," because it was a more realistic and practical goal to have. By the general election that year, Obama first injected religion into the argument.
This is pretty much where he has stayed ever since, using a religious excuse as a basis for keeping the word "marriage" out of the debate, while remaining in favor of the rights and benefits. But that practical, academic approach was never going to be enough, because the word "marriage" has very real legal and economic benefits. Setting up an entirely new set of laws for same-sex couples will always be separate and unequal.
Parallel to Obama's own shift on same-sex marriage has been a tremendous shift in public opinion. Some polls show that a slight majority of Americans now favor gay marriage. Even though the right wing still campaigns vigorously on social issues, there is a momentum building in favor of marriage equality. Obama boarded the train mid-trip, but the belief is that his words will play an important role moving forward.
I am the first to state that there should be no government involvement in our relationships, including any benefits given to two people who happen to be married. But while there are more than 1,000 financial benefits of marriage federally, plus many locally, those benefits should be equal. I also see the value of the marriage movement in pulling along, in the jetstream of the marriage fight, so many other LGBT rights issues.
What caused this shift for Obama? He has said in recent months that he was evolving on this issue, but most expected the complete evolution to happen after the November elections. That would have been the practical, cynical thing to do. But the other risk was that his base would continue to see his position as hypocritical and without integrity, and that part of his base would stay home and stop writing campaign checks. This delicate political balance, however, seems to have been only part of the reason for Obama's "coming out" for marriage equality. In the end, his and Michelle's own personal friendships, and the friendships of his daughters with children of gay and lesbian parents, are said to have also fed into this change. He could no longer reconcile his support of "everything but" marriage with his support of equality. He came to realize that civil unions were not the answer. And he made a decision that may hurt him politically but relieve him emotionally.
As he told ABC May 9:
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 are 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.
With those words, Obama made history. No president has done as much as Obama has already doe for LGBT rights and for individual LGBT people's lives (health care, hospital access, etc.). He can't overturn the Defense of Marriage Act without a bill to sign, he can't rule in the courts, and he can't stop states from voting on anti-gay laws, but by speaking out as president for marriage equality, Obama can change hearts and minds. And in the end, the only way we will have long-term success is by changing those hearts and minds. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not overnight make it easier for African Americans. Had the Equal Rights Amendment passed, it would not have stopped sexism. And the federal hate-crimes law won't stop violence against LGBTs. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia will always exist.
But words do matter. And by speaking out, by giving his own personal view, Obama will make a difference. His taking a stand has ramifications beyond the LGBT movement, because other communities who have felt let down by Obama's differed hopes and dreams may now see that he can get out of a middle ground made of quicksand and take a step on the solid ground of equality.
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