For Obama, gay marriage stance borne of a long evolution

Liberal bloggers were seated around a big table in the Roosevelt Room, peppering President Obama with policy questions. Suddenly, one of them turned to Obama and, struggling to overcome his emotions, made a very personal appeal.

“You can’t be equal in this country if the very core of who you are as a person and the love — the person you love is not — if that relationship isn’t the same as everybody else’s,” said Joe Sudbay, a gay writer for Americablog who said his community was “desperate” to know more about Obama’s stance on marriage rights.

“While I’m not prepared to reverse myself here, sitting in the Roosevelt Room at 3:30 in the afternoon,” Obama said, according to a transcript Sudbay posted on his blog after the October 2010 encounter, “I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I think a lot about. That’s probably the best you’ll do out of me today.”

It took a year and a half, but Obama gave Sudbay the answer he was looking for, affirming his support for full marriage rights in a Wednesday television interview. The president’s appearance had been arranged after Vice President Biden said on Sunday that he supported same-sex marriage, setting off a frenzy of speculation about Obama’s views.

The Biden comments clearly disrupted Obama’s plans, so much so that the vice president apologized to him in the Oval Office on Wednesday morning, according to White House officials — a rare public admission of a vice president overstepping his bounds. Obama said he understood, that Biden had spoken from the heart, according to the officials.

The political benefits from the timing of Obama’s reversal were clear — he needed to alter a story line that was painting him as indecisive and calculating. And the announcement has spurred gay donors to give even more to Obama’s reelection campaign.

But the conversion also followed years of private and public pressure on Obama, sometimes involving uncomfortable exchanges in which people spoke passionately for gay rights and the president responded by invoking the civil rights movement and rarely ceding ground.

Obama often described his process as an “evolution,” telling interviewers and advocates that he was “wrestling” or “struggling” with the question of marriage. He told ABC’s Robin Roberts that his thinking changed in part based on conversations with gay staffers, friends and soldiers, as well as dinner-table chats with his family.

Some inconsistencies remain in Obama’s stance. Though he thinks gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, he still says he views it as a states’ rights issue at a time when many states are moving to tighten prohibitions on same-sex unions.

And the timeline that he and his aides have described remains muddled. Administration officials said Obama made his decision earlier this year and was looking for a good way to announce it. But the president suggested in his interview that he made up his mind much earlier, after the state of New York legalized same-sex marriage in the summer of 2011.

“That’s part of the — the evolution that I went through,” he told Roberts. “I asked myself — right after that New York vote took place, if I had been a state senator, which I was for a time — how would I have voted? And I had to admit to myself, ‘You know what? I think that — I would have voted yes.’ ”

Start of an evolution

Obama’s tangled history with same-sex marriage began in 1996, when he was running for a state Senate seat representing the liberal south side of Chicago.

That was when he filled out a questionnaire for a local gay newspaper, then called Outlines, in which he appeared to declare his no-qualms support for legalized marriage rights.

“I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” Obama stated on the signed form, a copy of which was posted on the paper’s Web site in 2009.

By 1998, he was already backing off that stance, according to Tracy Baim, publisher of the Windy City Media Group, which bought the newspaper that queried Obama on the issue during his state Senate campaigns.

For his second campaign, Obama “said he’d have to look into it,” Baim recalled.

In 2004, as he ran for the U.S. Senate, Obama embraced civil unions and full rights for gays and lesbians — but abandoned the word “marriage.”

Baim, who interviewed Obama that year and published a book in 2010 titled “Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage,” said the candidate’s new rhetoric on the issue rattled some of his gay supporters.

Baim’s book describes an “emergency meeting” convened by Obama with his advisory council of gays and lesbians to reassure them after he told a local radio host that he opposed marriage because of religious concerns. Baim writes that he told the group he was trying to “achieve the achievable,” referring to civil unions.

Obama was affirming his opposition to same-sex marriage just as the issue was taking on a new national profile. That same year, social conservatives were pushing anti-gay marriage initiatives across the country. President Bush, as he plotted a reelection strategy around mobilizing the Republican base, endorsed a federal ban on same-sex marriage.

Throughout Obama’s 2004 campaign, he drew strong support — financially and otherwise — from the gay and lesbian community. And advocates in Washington began to see him as an ally for their cause.

Winnie Stachelberg, now executive vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress and a leading advocate for the community, first met Obama at a fundraiser that year and thanked him for his role in blocking a state effort in Illinois to ban same-sex unions. Obama told her the measure was “discrimination, pure and simple,” Stachelberg recalled.

By 2008, as he campaigned for president, Obama was starting to get tough questions from gays and lesbians about his marriage stance. Questioners saw parallels between their own struggles and those of Obama’s fellow African Americans — and his answers revealed some defensiveness.

“Both you and your wife speak eloquently about being told to wait your turn and how if you had done that, you might not have gone to law school or run for Senate or even president,” said Kerry Lux Eleveld, then a writer for the gay newspaper The Advocate, in an April 2008 interview with Obama. “To some extent, isn’t that what you’re asking same-sex couples to do by favoring civil unions over marriage — to wait their turn?”

“I don’t ask them that,” Obama said. “Anybody who’s been at [a gay community] event with me can testify that my message is very explicit — I don’t think that the gay and lesbian community, the LGBT community, should take its cues from me or some political leader in terms of what they think is right for them.”

Obama went on to draw historical parallels to his own ethnic background, while also noting the distinctions between his role as a political figure and the role played by activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in pushing for equal rights. “I’m the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born,” he said in that interview. “That doesn’t mean that had I been an adviser to Dr. King back then, I would have told him to lead with repealing an antimiscegenation law, because it just might not have been the best strategy in terms of moving broader equality forward. That’s a decision that the LGBT community has to make. That’s not a decision for me to make.”

A major step

Much of the pressure on Obama came from gay activists in 2010 pressing him to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

That repeal was viewed as a major achievement, and as Obama began to be asked again about marriage, he started to acknowledge “evolving” views.

Former administration officials and gay rights activists close to the White House said Obama never would have voiced support for same-sex marriage had he not succeeded in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

White House aides always considered repealing the military ban “as a building block to get to a meaningful discussion around marriage,” said Aubrey Sarvis, head of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which worked to end the ban.

Explaining Obama’s shift on the issue, senior administration officials also pointed to his visit to New York City in June 2011, on the eve of the state legislature passing a same-sex marriage bill and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signing it into law.

“Marriage, marriage,” Obama’s audience chanted, as he delivered remarks at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Manhattan.

Less than a week later, Obama hosted a reception for a group of gay and lesbian leaders in the White House East Room to mark LGBT Pride Month. In brief remarks posted on the White House Web site, Obama outlined his record on gay rights issues, declaring that the “bottom line is I’ve met my commitments to the LGBT community.”

“Now that doesn’t mean our work is done,” Obama told them.

He acknowledged that “there are going to be times when you’re still frustrated with me,” a remark that drew knowing laughter.

“I can count on you to let me know,” he said. “This is not a shy group.”

Administration officials said Obama’s thinking finally shifted months later, early in 2012.

Around that time, as his reelection campaign was revving up, the president was being pressed repeatedly in private encounters at fundraisers in the gay and lesbian community. People familiar with those conversations said Obama revealed very little beyond his public statements, often just smiling and thanking them for their thoughts.

Meantime, Obama and his aides had begun discussing where and when he should reveal his new viewpoint, according to people familiar with White House deliberations.

Any hopes for an orchestrated rollout, however, disappeared when Biden unexpectedly told NBC’s David Gregory that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriages. Suddenly, much to the chagrin of some close to Obama, it was the 69-year-old Biden, who had voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, who emerged as they gay rights hero in the White House.

“The President has been the leader on this issue from day one and the Vice President never intended to distract from that,” Kendra Barkoff, the vice president’s press secretary, said Thursday in a statement.

When Obama’s ABC interview finally aired, Sudbay, the blogger, tuned in with anticipation. As Obama spoke, using the word “marriage” and describing the dreams and aspirations of gays and lesbians, Sudbay, 51, wept.

“I felt like our conversation finally came to a conclusion,” he said. “It was a year and a half later than I hoped, but I’m glad it ended this way.”

Staff writer Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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