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1 year later: A look back at Obama’s support for marriage

Observers say announcement helped lead to success at the ballot

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Barack Obama, White House, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade
Barack Obama, White House, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade, Robin Roberts

President Obama comes out for marriage equality in an ABC News interview (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Amid cheers over recent marriage equality victories in Rhode Island and Delaware, supporters of same-sex marriage are marking the one-year anniversary of President Obama coming out for marriage equality, calling it a milestone that helped lead to the successes of the past year.

It was a year ago, on May 9, 2012, when Obama declared in an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts that he had grown to support same-sex 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,” Obama said.

The decision, Obama said, came as the result of speaking with gay members of the armed forces during the debate on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and realizing they should have equal access to the institution of marriage.

But the president was careful to limit the scope of his support. Obama said he was hesitant to make an announcement in favor of marriage equality because he “didn’t want to nationalize the issue” and maintained that he believes the marriage issue remains one best left to the states.

And the announcement wasn’t spontaneous. The president endorsed same-sex marriage after saying for 19 months he was in a state of evolution on the issue. Obama finally made the announcement just three days after Vice President Joseph Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’s “absolutely comfortable” with married same-sex couples having the “same exact rights” as others.

Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality was seen as a watershed moment because no sitting U.S. president had ever come out for marriage equality and supporters of same-sex marriage hoped his words would influence others to join the president in completing their evolution on the issue.

Arguably, that happened. In the days after the announcement, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of black Americans, 59 percent, had also come to support same-sex marriage — up 18 points after the president’s announcement.

Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a political scientist at the City University of New York, identified this growth in support of marriage equality among black Americans as one of the most immediate consequences of Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality.

“Polling data show a statistically significant increase in support for same-sex marriage among black respondents for the periods immediately before and after Obama’s announcement,” Pinello said. “In turn, this increased support probably was crucial in a state with a large African-American-voter contingent like Maryland, which narrowly approved of gay nuptials last November.”

The growth in support isn’t limited to black Americans. Another widely noticed poll in March from Washington Post-ABC News found that 58 percent of the American public had come to support same-sex marriage.

And in the wake of the president’s announcement, substantive changes were seen in favor of marriage equality throughout the country. For the first time ever, the Democratic Party platform in 2012 endorsed marriage equality. In another first, voters legalized same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington State at the ballot in November, while voters in Minnesota rejected a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In the past week, Rhode Island and Delaware became the latest to join other states in legalizing marriage equality.

Moreover, a bevy of U.S. senators have followed in Obama’s tracks by coming out for same-sex marriage. The ones who have come out since the beginning of this year include Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo,), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) as well as Republicans Rob Portman (Ohio) and Mark Kirk (Ill.). Now all but three members of the Democratic caucus — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — back marriage equality.

Pinello said Obama articulating his views a year ago in favor of marriage equality helped set the tone for the Democratic Party that has enabled other lawmakers to come out for same-sex marriage.

“The president set a standard for the Democratic Party, encouraging its other officeholders to emulate his leadership on the issue,” Pinello said. “For example, I doubt that there would be nearly unanimous support for marriage equality among Democrats in the U.S. Senate today without Obama’s action a year ago.”

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reflected on the president’s current views on marriage equality when asked by Sirius XM Radio’s Jared Rizzi if Obama still thinks that state-by-state is the best way to address the issue in the wake of Delaware becoming the 11th state with same-sex marriage on the books.

“There has been enormous progress made,” Carney said. “I think that the facts, as you just recited them, demonstrate the progress made. The president’s views are known. He’s expressed them. Our views on issues like DOMA and Prop 8 have been expressed in legal filings, so I’ll point you to those. For him, it’s a fundamental issue of equal rights, and that’s why he has taken the position that he has taken. But for our legal approach to these issues, I would refer you to the Department of Justice.”

But Obama hit another milestone on Election Day six months after his announcement by winning re-election to the White House despite predictions that coming out for marriage equality would jeopardize his re-election prospects. Although he didn’t win as he did in 2008 North Carolina, a state with a significant evangelical population, Obama walloped Mitt Romney in the electoral college by taking 332 votes in the Electoral College compared to Romney’s 206.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama’s victory after coming out for marriage equality is having a major impact as LGBT advocates push more states to legalize same-sex marriage.

“The president proved that elected officials — at the highest of levels — could be for marriage, campaign on it and be reelected, in fact, based on their support,” Sainz said. “Without that shining example, we may not have the number of senators we do today or have been able to recruit the legislators we need to support marriage in Rhode Island and Delaware and soon in Minnesota and Illinois.”

Obama’s support for marriage equality hasn’t been limited to his words in that May interview. Days before the election, newspapers in Maryland, Maine and Washington State published statements from his campaign urging voters in those states to legalize marriage equality at the ballot. After Obama endorsed legislation in favor of marriage equality in Illinois, Organizing for Action, the successor organization to the Obama campaign, sent out action alerts to its members in the state calling on them to help pass the marriage equality legislation.

Most notably, Obama raised the bar on his position in favor of same-sex marriage by having his Justice Department file a friend-of-the-court brief in the pending lawsuit before the Supreme Court challenging California’s Proposition 8. That brief argued the ban on same-sex marriage in California was unconstitutional and suggested similar bans in other states were unconstitutional.

Even before Obama endorsed marriage equality, his administration had already stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court in addition to aiding litigation by filing briefs and arguing against the law in oral arguments.

John Aravosis, who’s gay and editor of AMERICAblog, said Obama has done a “pretty good job” in acting on his position in favor of marriage equality, but added he could do more — particularly in advocating for immigration reform that would enable gay Americans to sponsor foreign spouses for residency within the country.

“If we sort of think through the things that we wanted him to do in the last year on marriage, he’s done a lot of them,” Aravosis said. “The only one I can think of [him not doing] is putting his foot down on immigration reform and saying, ‘This shall not pass if you discriminate against gays.’ It’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head where he needs to do a better job in terms of putting his foot down.”

Aravosis added to some degree the onus is on the LGBT community in terms of “coming up with the list of pro-marriage needs to do” because “rabble-rousing” on the legal briefs in the Prop 8 case eventually led the administration to file them.

It remains to be seen what impact the president’s words will have in future battles over marriage equality. Will lawmakers in Minnesota and Illinois heed Obama’s words as they consider whether to become the 12th and 13th states to legalize same-sex marriage? Will the U.S. Supreme Court draw upon President Obama’s words in rulings against the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8?

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said he expects Obama’s words from a year ago to continue to have an impact in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision and future legislative wins.

“The president’s strong support for the freedom to marry adds to the case we are making in the Supreme Court, signaling to the justices that America is ready for the freedom to marry and they can do the right thing knowing that not only will history vindicate them, but the public will embrace a right ruling,” Wolfson said. “And we’ve already seen how the president’s leadership — and resonant explanation of how he changed his mind  — adds to the momentum in state battles, ongoing and to come.”

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Congress

Garcia slams effort to ban drag shows as GOP passes NDAA with anti-LGBTQ riders

Equality Caucus denounces anti-LGBTQ amendments

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U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) during the debate on Thursday over the National Defense Authorization Act (Screen capture via C-Span)

U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) slammed Republican U.S. Rep. Josh Brecheen’s (Okla.) effort to ban drag shows on American military bases during a debate over the annual National Defense Authorization Act spending bill on Thursday.

The appropriations package, which contains five anti-LGBTQ riders pushed by House GOP members, was passed on Friday.

“We know there are a lot of threats to the health and well-being of our service members and their families: poisoned water, toxic mold in military housing, PTSD, and suicide,” said Garcia, who is gay and a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

“So I’m stunned to see that the Republican idea to protect our troops is to ban drag shows,” he said. “Mr. Speaker, my Republican colleagues want us to believe that ‘these gays are trying to murder us.’ They want us to believe that drag is harmful, or immoral and wrong. This is ridiculous.”

“We can document and celebrate drag shows on military bases since the late 1800s, and through both world wars,” Garcia continued. “The USO and the Red Cross supported drag during World War II. That’s right: the Army that defeated Hitler and saved the world included drag queens.” 

“Ronald Regan starred in a movie called ‘This Is the Army!’ — a movie about World War II that featured four drag performances,” he said. “And he’s not the only Republican president who knew that drag can be fun and sometimes silly.”

Garcia displayed a photo of former president and presumptive 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump alongside former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was dressed in drag.

“Mr. Speaker,” the congressman said, “drag is Art. Drag is Culture. Drag is Creativity. Drag is Comedy. And no, drag is Not a Crime. It’s not pornography. The real obscenity is when one of our colleagues, the gentlewoman from Georgia, shows literal posters of revenge porn in our Oversight Committee! If we want to end porn in government facilities, let’s ban that.”

In a statement on Friday, the Equality Caucus called out House Republicans’ politicization of the military appropriations bill.

“Like last year, House Republicans voted to add poison pill, anti-LGBTQI+ provisions to the NDAA that discriminate against our LGTBQI+ servicemembers and their families,” said Caucus Chair U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) “The Equality Caucus remains committed to preventing these discriminatory provisions from becoming law.”

Along with Brecheen’s drag show ban, the caucus highlighted four of these riders from this year’s NDAA:

  • Amendment 46 by U.S. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), which would “prohibit funds for the Department of Defense Education Activity from being used to purchase, maintain, or display in a school library or classroom books that include transgender and intersex characters or touch on topics related to gender identity or variations in sex characteristics,”
  • Amendment 49 by U.S. Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.), which would “ban Pride flags from any workplace, common access area, or public area of the Department of Defense,” and
  • Amendments 52 and 53 by U.S. Reps. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.), which would, respectively, “ban TRICARE from covering and furnishing gender-affirming surgeries and hormone treatments,” and “prohibit the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) from covering or providing referrals for “gender transition procedures”—including puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and surgeries—for servicemembers’ dependent minor children.”
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Congress

Merkley, joined by Advocates for Trans Equality, makes Equality Act push

Ore. senator said ‘our rights and freedoms are on the ballot this year’

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) speaks at the Senate Swamp on Tuesday. (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called for passage of the Equality Act during a press conference on Wednesday alongside Advocates for Trans Equality, who were convened on Capitol Hill for the Trans Day of Empowerment lobby day.

Instead of freedom and the opportunity to participate fully in society, the senator said, “We see hatred, we see harassment, we see homelessness, we see discrimination, and bigotry, and violence, we see unemployment, we even see state-sanctioned attempts to outlaw the very identity of our transgender members of our community.”

“Across America in 2024, in our state legislatures there have been 500 bills drafted to constrain the opportunity for transgender Americans,” Merkley said. “They take on school curriculum, or they ban gender affirming care or otherwise seek to constrain the opportunity to participate in society, by our transgender individuals, in so many different ways.”

“This is wrong,” he said. “This is unacceptable. And we need to therefore pass the Equality Act here in the halls of Congress.”

Merkley, who introduced the latest iteration of the bill in the Senate, noted the legislation would “end discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, in housing, in public accommodations, in mortgages, in financial transactions, in jury duty — every facet of American society.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who is gay and a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, is leading the House version of the bill.

However, Merkley said, “our partners on the right side of the aisle have abandoned us. So, the responsibility to pass the Equality Act falls firmly on the Democratic Party.”

The senator called for an end to the Senate filibuster as a means of passing important legislation like the Equality Act.

Separately, in a statement to the Washington Blade, Merkley said, “Voting is the heart of our democracy. As Americans cast their ballots this fall, they have the chance to decide major issues facing our nation — from LGBTQ+ rights to reproductive freedom to so much more.”

“Democracy doesn’t exist unless every eligible voter has equal opportunity to make their voice heard,” he said. “As attacks on our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors continue in the halls of Congress, state legislatures, and in our communities, we must all speak out and vote against this rising hate.”

The senator added, “Our rights and freedoms are on the ballot this year, and I won’t stop fighting until every American can live safely and freely as their authentic self.”

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Politics

EXCLUSIVE: Biden-Harris campaign debuts ads targeting LGBTQ voters

Ads to begin running Tuesday

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Pride month ad (Photo courtesy of the Biden-Harris 2024 campaign)

The Biden-Harris 2024 campaign will debut new ads on Tuesday targeting LGBTQ voters in battleground states for Pride Month ahead of November’s election.

“These ads will be featured across national and battleground LGBTQ+ media outlets, and will run throughout the month,” the campaign explained in a press release.

The aim is to “uplift” Biden’s record as “the most pro-LGBTQ+ president in history” while also highlighting “Donald Trump’s history of attacking their rights and his plans to go further.”

One ad that was previewed exclusively by the Washington Blade reads, “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fighting for the LGBTQ community!” with a photo of the president and vice president.

Another, formatted for social media, features a photo of Pride flags atop a quote from the “PBS NewsHour”: “On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has been outlining what he plans to do if elected in November. That includes rolling back the rights of millions of LGBTQ+ people. It’s part of a wider playbook to undo many civil rights advances for minority groups.”

“This Pride is an important time to remember the progress we’ve made for our community under President Biden, and the stakes of this election for LGBTQ+ Americans as Trump proudly runs to strip us of our rights,” said Biden-Harris 2024 Spokesperson Kevin Munoz, who is gay.

“From threatening IVF treatments to threatening LGBTQ+ marriages, Trump’s Project 2025 agenda would rip away our rights, and sow needless hate and division for Trump’s political gain,” he said. “LGBTQ+ Americans deserve to hear from us about these stakes, and this buy shows we will continue to show up and make our case to them in this election.”

The ad blitz on Tuesday comes after the campaign’s announcement of a paid media and organizing push for Pride month, which includes sizable investments in courting LGBTQ voters in battleground states.

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