The statement understandably energised many supporters of LGBT equality who hope this means the Democrats will finally get off the fence on this issue. And since one of the reactionary right’s favorite myths about marriage equality is that African Americans are generally hostile to it, Obama’s words may help fix that misconception. But something more needs to be said: Barack Obama doesn’t deserve the praise he’s getting; nor should he receive any credit for “fighting for LGBT rights.” Obama isn’t being a “leader” on the issue of marriage equality, as some supporters claim, but a latecomer. His position only “evolved” to an open statement of sympathy after opinion polls showed it was a politically safe position among a large majority of the population outside of conservative Republicans. That sea change in public sentiment was driven not by politicians, but because masses of LGBT people and their supporters spoke up and took action. Their position on what ought to be considered an elementary right hasn’t “evolved,” and they have good reason to be frustrated when supporters of the Democrats claim that Obama is making a “courageous” statement. Nor should the damage that Obama did to the cause of marriage equality, by remaining silent at best during his campaign for the presidency and his time in office, up to and including the successful effort that led to the passage in May of an anti-gay marriage referendum in North Carolina, be forgotten.
In fact, Obama’s position on same-sex marriage has evolved – back to what he said he believed sixteen years ago. In 1996, during his first campaign for state Senate in Illinois, Obama wrote in a letter to an LGBT magazine: “I favour legalising same-sex marriages, and would fight any effort to prohibit such marriages.” But when he ran for U.S. senator in 2003 he changed his position, saying he would oppose repealing DOMA founded on the outdated belief that marriage must be between a man and a woman. As his presidential campaign was getting underway in 2007, Obama “evolved” a little more, stating that he now thought DOMA should be repealed, but still opposed same-sex marriage. Obama’s decision to revert back to support for marriage equality today is an easier position to take given the vast shift in public opinion during Obama’s political career. In 1996, national Gallup polls showed just 27% supported marriage equality. Last year, polls found for the first time that a majority of respondents believed same-sex couples deserve the right to marry.
More importantly for Obama and the Democrats, two-thirds of people who call themselves Democrats and 57% of self-described “independents” support marriage equality. In other words, among base supporters of the Democratic Party, and even among the “swing voters” that the Obama campaign relentlessly obsesses over, there is strong support for marriage equality. This shift in public opinion is the hard-won result of years of activism at the local, state and federal level and, more broadly, the willingness of LGBT people and those who support them to speak up in all kinds of settings, personal and public, against discrimination and bigotry. In fact, the tide of support might be even greater if leading Democrats like Obama hadn’t treated marriage equality as a political football, rather than the fundamental civil rights issue it is. Obama and his advisers also know that his statement of support for same-sex marriage will energise supporters, despite the three-and-a-half years of disappointment about the behavior of the Democrats, even when they had a majority in both houses of Congress. For certain, the announcement resulted in a campaign donation bonanza. The Obama campaign reportedly raised over $1 million in the first 90 minutes after news broke about his “change of heart” on marriage equality; the day after the interview was broadcast, Obama raked in $15 million at a fundraiser hosted by George Clooney. Previously, many pro-LGBT funders had threatened to withhold donations when Obama refused to issue an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees earlier this year.
Supporters of the Democrats shouldn’t be so quick to forgive Obama. His previous anti-marriage equality position has had lasting consequences. On the night Obama was elected in 2008, the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban passed in California by a narrow margin. Supporters of Prop 8 used Obama’s statement about marriage being between a man and a woman in advertisements promoting the ballot measure. Not only did the Obama campaign stay silent about the pro-Prop 8 propaganda, but the Democratic Party establishment failed to build opposition that could have shifted the vote. The same thing happened in late 2009, when Maine voters passed a referendum repealing legalised same-sex marriage, and again this year with the anti-marriage equality referendum in North Carolina. In fact, Obama has already made several campaign appearances in North Carolina this year, but he didn’t say a word against the anti-LGBT referendum. After taking office in 2009, Obama did nothing to get DOMA overturned. On the contrary, the Justice Department defended the law in federal court in a brief filed by federal lawyers comparing same-sex marriage to incest and paedophilia. The Justice Department only stopped defending DOMA last year. This pattern showed up on other issues like repeal of the notorious “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on LGBT people serving openly in the military. Obama refused to use an executive order to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Even after Congress passed a repeal bill at the end of 2010, the Pentagon, supposedly under Obama’s command, continued to enforce the ban only stopping when a federal judge ordered it to in the summer of 2011. When “don’t ask, don’t tell” was finally ended, more than 80% of people in the U.S. supported its repeal.
Supporters of the Democratic Party will credit Obama as a fighter for LGBT equality, but the real credit rightly belongs to the tireless efforts of advocates and activists for LGBT rights over the years, as well as the bravery of millions of LGBT people who have come out to family, friends and co-workers, and who have spoken up against discrimination. Obama might never have said a thing about marriage equality or DOMA or “don’t ask, don’t tell” if not for the tens of thousands of people who got active following the passage of Prop 8 and organised successful grassroots protests in California and around the country culminating in more than 200,000 people descending on Washington D.C. in October 2009 for the National Equality March to demand full federal equality for LGBT people. Not only is Obama late to the game when it comes to marriage equality, but he undercut his stand by saying it should still be the right of states to decide on the issue.
As brilliant columnist Dan Savage pointed out, the ABC News report about Obama’s interview included a “straddle”; according to ABC, “The president stressed that this is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.” “So,” Savage wrote, “the president supports same-sex marriage while also supporting the right of states to ban the same-sex marriages that he supports.” The idea of state’s rights, of course, has been used to defend many regressive policies and institutions of the past such as racist Jim Crow segregation, which had to be overturned by the federal government over the opposition of the Southern states. Until the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, for example, it was still legal for states to outlaw inter-racial marriages. Nobody would claim the struggle against this bigoted injustice was complete while states could still “decide” on the legality of such marriages. The same should be true about same-sex marriage. Thus, Obama’s statement that marriage equality should be left up to the states raises serious questions about the consequences of his supposed “change of heart.” For example, one of the main planks of DOMA is that states can choose to ignore the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other states. So what does Obama think now about repealing DOMA, something the Democrats promised in 2008 but failed to accomplish even when they controlled both houses of Congress with strong majorities?
This position also puts Obama at odds with the current legal case against Proposition 8. Lawyers challenging the referendum say the right to marriage for same-sex couples is guaranteed by the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment, which states that “no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Obama has taken a long-overdue step by returning to his previous position of personally supporting marriage equality. Activists may be right in hoping the statement will make it harder for Democrats to back away from future action in defense of equality. Another positive consequence is that Obama’s statement will help to challenge the myth that African Americans are generally hostile to same-sex marriage. Polls show that public opinion in the black community has shifted from two-thirds opposed to roughly the same level of support as the U.S. population as a whole. Still, we shouldn’t forget that Obama left a loophole in his statement with his talk about the rights of states to decide the question. And most important of all, we should challenge the idea that Obama led the way in this struggle. In reality, he was dragged into saying mostly the right thing thanks to the actions and arguments of supporters of LGBT equality everywhere.