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?”