Obama's gay marriage move hailed as milestone

Fri, May 11, 2012, 01:00

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s statement in a television interview that “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married” was a milestone of immense historic significance for the decades-old gay rights movement. Never before had a US president unequivocally called for marriage equality for homosexuals.

The move was also an uncharacteristically risky step for Obama, who had resisted stating his position for more than two years. The news sparked a media frenzy when the president’s remarks were broadcast on Wednesday afternoon.

But ultimately, analysts agree, the economy, not same-sex marriage, is the issue that will dominate the presidential election campaign. Fewer than 1 per cent of respondents in a Gallup poll last month listed gay rights as the most important issue facing the country.

“I think it’s a great thing for America,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro, who has spent the past 35 years writing four books on the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, told an audience of close to 1,000 people in Washington on Wednesday night.

“I think it was a very hard decision to make, because there were a lot of cross-currents. It was a bold decision.”

The audience burst into applause for the only time during Caro’s hour-long lecture. Some commentators compared Obama’s stance in favour of gay marriage to Johnson’s push for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the mid-1960s.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Irish-American ally and probable successor Christine Quinn is about to marry her female partner, called Obama’s announcement “a major turning point in the history of American civil rights”, and noted that whenever a US president had embraced an expansion of rights, it had eventually become law.

Euphoria in the Democratic Party – and among gay Republicans – was expected to turn Obama’s attendance last night at the largest fundraiser in US history, at the Los Angeles home of actor George Clooney, into a victory party.

Guests paid $40,000 (€30,900) each to attend. The evening was expected to bring in up to $15 million, after seats beside Clooney and Obama were raffled on the internet.

One in six of Obama’s “bundlers” – large-scale fundraisers – is openly gay. The Obama campaign hopes that Hollywood will compensate for the financial support Obama has lost to Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Wall Street.

Within minutes of Obama’s announcement, his campaign sent out an email slugged “marriage”, with a link to his ABC interview. “If you can, please donate today,” the message ended.

Some donors, such as television producer Norman Lear and his wife Lyn, responded immediately to Obama’s statement. The Lears contributed the legal maximum of $80,000 to the Obama campaign moments after the announcement, telling the New York Times: “This is the kind of leadership we support, and we are happy to max out today to his re-election campaign.”

Aides said Obama had in any case planned to make such an announcement before the Democratic convention in September. Senate majority leader Harry Reid predicted yesterday that legalising same-sex marriage would be a plank in the party platform.

Most observers assumed the president privately supported gay marriage, but US vice-president Joe Biden’s statement in a television interview last Sunday that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage forced Obama to act.

The Obama campaign believes the announcement will re-energise gay and young supporters. A Gallup poll this week found that 71 per cent of people between 18 and 29 supported gay marriage, compared to only 20 per cent of those 80 and older. Supporters and opponents divide along party lines. In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, 64 per cent of Democrats supported it, compared to 39 per cent of Republicans.

Campaigning in Oklahoma, Romney vaunted his consistency in opposing not only same-sex marriage but also civil unions that confer the rights inherent in marriage on homosexual couples. It was, Romney said, “a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues”.

The conservative Wall Street Journal said Obama “just solved that problem Mitt Romney supposedly has with rousing cultural conservatives”.

Obama’s announcement reduced civil unions, the middle ground he previously espoused, to irrelevancy. The country seems to be pulling in opposite directions. Despite polls showing a dramatic evolution in public opinion – support for same-sex marriage has risen from 27 per cent in 1996 to at least 50 per cent today – opponents of gay marriage have won every time the subject has been put to a popular vote. On Tuesday, North Carolina became the 31st state to ban gay marriage. Six states and the district of Columbia have legalised it.

The constitutionality of gay marriage will eventually be decided by judges. A federal appeals court in February struck down a gay-marriage ban that was passed by referendum in California. That case could reach the US supreme court in the session that begins next October.

In 1967 the supreme court struck down miscegenation laws that banned marriage between people of different races.

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