On a cool, damp Wednesday in Washington in May 2012, President Obama sat in the Cabinet Room at the White House and declared himself unequivocally in favor of gay marriage.
It had been less than 10 years since the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, setting off an incredible legal tale that would culminate in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2015, establishing that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry.
The relatively quick legal evolution of the issue was matched by a relatively slow personal and political evolution by the president, who in November 2008, as he was about to be elected, told an MTV audience: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”
But even that position was a switch from 1996, when as a candidate for the Illinois State Senate, he completed a questionnaire from a gay newspaper in Chicago, saying: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
Obama had never been ambiguous about his support for gay rights: He strongly supported gay unions; he led the rollback of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, and he appointed the first openly gay secretary of the Army. His administration eventually refused to defend or enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, which had prohibited federal government agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages for the purpose of federal laws or programs, such as Social Security or disability benefits and veteran family benefits.
Obama’s open support was not so much a catalyst for change as much as a reflection of change already well underway. Given the huge shifts in public support for gay marriage, it was now politically safer for him to support gay marriage and increasingly difficult for him not to.
Indeed, in his preamble to his declaration, Obama told Robin Roberts of ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “As I’ve said, I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue.”
The “evolution” seems to have been prodded along by some external pressures. The president said his daughters helped change his mind.
“You know, Malia and Sasha, they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples,” he said in the interview with Roberts. “There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table. And we’ve been talking and — about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would — it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them. And frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated differently when it comes to the eyes of the law.”
Three days before the Roberts interview, Vice President Biden told David Gregory on NBC News’s “Meet the Press:” “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men marrying women are entitled to the same exact rights. All the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly I don’t see much of a distinction beyond that.”
But Biden prefaced those remarks with this caveat: “Look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy.”
The same week, 61 percent of voters in North Carolina voted for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, making it the 30th state to establish such restrictions. But over the next three years, state and federal courts completely scrambled the issue landscape with rulings striking down, and occasionally upholding, those restrictions.
The Supreme Court consolidated cases from four states — Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky — and its 5-4 decision affirmed not just the right of gays to marry, but the deeply contentious nature of the issue.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said: “Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”
In an epic dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. chastised the majority for overreach. “This Court is not a legislature,” he wrote. “Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be.”
President Obama led the celebration of the narrow decision with an appearance in the Rose Garden: “This ruling is a victory for America. . . . When all Americans are truly treated as equal, we are more free.”
A few months later, in the spring of 2016, speaking in London, Obama said he was struck by the “rapidity with which the marriage equality movement changed the political landscape and hearts and minds, and resulted in actual changes in law. It’s probably been the fastest set of changes in terms of a social movement that I’ve seen.”