Moral Low Ground

US Government


No more “evolving” on gay marriage. President Barack Obama has finally stepped up and endorsed full equality for all Americans.

In the wake of North Carolina’s vote to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, the Obama campaign expressed the president’s “disappointment”  with the measure’s passage. But in an election that most are predicting will be a real squeaker, few expected the president to endorse marriage equality until after the votes were all counted in November.

Obama has delivered what can only be described as the most pleasant surprise of his presidency.

Speaking to ABC News’ Robin Roberts, the president made his stance refreshingly and perfectly clear:

“Same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he at long last declared.

“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have 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,” the president said.

The importance of Obama’s change of heart cannot be overstated. Rarely, if ever, has a president endorsed a civil rights position that the American public does not then accept, or even embrace, thereafter. This could very well be Obama’s greatest legacy.

The culmination of Obama’s evolution actually brings the president full-circle back to the views he held as a candidate for Illinois state senator back in 1996. Answering a questionnaire sent out to candidates by Outlines, a gay Chicago newspaper, Obama expressed an “unequivocal support for gay marriage.”

“I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” he replied.

But the realities of campaigning for political office at the national level drove Obama to embrace– publicly, at least– a far more conservative and discriminatory mentality.

“What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman … What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it’s not simply the two persons who are meeting,” he said in 2004 while running for US Senate. “I don’t think marriage is a civil right.”

By the time he was running for president in 2007, Obama supported civil unions, but not gay marriage, a position reminiscent of the “separate but equal” (which was anything but equal) treatment of blacks during the Jim Crow era. In his 2006 bestseller The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that he viewed marriage as “a special place for the union of a man and a woman”

In August 2008, just months before the election, Obama told pastor Rick Warren, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian…it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”

Many had high hopes that Obama would come out in support of marriage equality after he was elected. But to many LGBT Americans, his administration was a great disappointment. He infuriated activists by slowing a promised increase in AIDS funding, one of the few bright spots of the abysmal Bush administration. He also took his time repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the discriminatory ban on gays serving openly in the US armed forces.

By 2010, Obama was using the word “evolve” to describe his beliefs about marriage equality. ” I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage,” he said. “But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships.”

“My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this. At this point, what I’ve said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have,” he said in December 2010.

In announcing that his administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law banning recognition of gay marriage, the president said that he was “grappling” with his personal views on the issue in February 2011.

That June, Obama opined the “principle will win out” during a White House press conference about New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

“I think what you’re seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they’ve got to be treated like every other American,” he said. “And I think that principle will win out. It’s not going to be perfectly smooth, and it turns out that the President – I’ve discovered since I’ve been in this office – can’t dictate precisely how this process moves.”

When ABC’s George Stephanopolous asked the president if he would shift his support from civil unions to full marriage equality last October, Obama replied that he was “still working on it.”

He has stuck with the “evolution” theme ever since, even as prominent members of his administration, such as Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have backed gay marriage.

The president’s bold endorsement of marriage equality could hurt him come November in swing states like Ohio and North Carolina, where even many Democrats are opposed to same-sex marriage. In North Carolina, voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships on Tuesday by a margin of 61 to 39 percent.

But over the past two decades, Americans have been increasingly supportive of equality. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed that fully half of all Americans favor gay marriage, up from just 27 percent in 1996.

Americans’ positions on marriage equality are largely based on their ages and political affiliation. The nation seems to be moving inexorably towards acceptance; even many young Republicans support gay marriage.

Obama noted this encouraging trend in his ABC interview Wednesday.

“You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same sex equality, [they] believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it.”

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