Revealed: Obama used to support same-sex marriage

Today, the president-elect favors civil unions instead of full marriage rights for homosexuals, but that reportedly wasn't the case in 1996.

By Alex Koppelman

Published January 14, 2009 12:47AM (EST)

Today, President-elect Barack Obama opposes granting same-sex couples full marriage rights, though he is in favor of civil unions and against amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. (He also wants to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.) That, the Windy City Times revealed Tuesday, is at odds with the position Obama took in 1996, when, in a response to a newspaper's questionnaire, he wrote, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

During last year's presidential campaign, the paper's resulting article, which described Obama's position, became public knowledge. But it was only after the election that the reporter to whom the response was sent discovered the actual document in her files. (Via Politico's Ben Smith, a scan of the response can be seen here.)

Obama has had a hard time explaining why, exactly, he favors civil unions but not same-sex marriage, and has been tripped up when questioned on his justification, which is that he wants to focus on legal equality, not the name for it. During the "gay debate" in 2007, for instance, moderator Joe Solmonese -- referring to Plessy v. Ferguson -- asked him, "On the grounds of civil marriage, can you see to our community where that comes across as sounding like 'separate but equal'?"

"[I]f I were advising the civil rights movement back in 1961 about its approach to civil rights, I would have probably said it's less important that we focus on an anti-miscegenation law than we focus on ... all the legal rights that are conferred by the state," Obama said at the time. "[A]s I've proposed it, [civil unions] wouldn't be a lesser thing, from my perspective. And look, you know, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I'm interested is making sure that those legal rights are available to people."

A spokesman for the president-elect has not yet responded to a request for comment. But if the document is indeed authentic then the next question is what prompted the change in Obama's stance. The most obvious answer, of course, is politics. Maybe Obama just realizes (correctly) that same-sex marriage is a political non-starter, while civil unions are relatively popular, so he chooses to publicly support the feasible position.

Or maybe it's about his political career. A Gallup poll conducted last May showed that 26 percent of those who oppose same-sex marriage would not vote for a candidate with a different opinion. Those on the other side of the issue aren't one-issue voters in the same way; just two percent said they'd only vote for someone who agreed with them. Obviously, the people opposed to extending marriage to gays aren't natural Obama voters, but that hasn't stopped Democrats from trying to appeal to them.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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