We made Barack Obama evolve: The behind-the-scenes story of how he got to "I do"

Obama's legacy will be enhanced by his same-sex marriage position — but it was LGBT activists who made that happen

Published November 29, 2015 3:00PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/Elaine Thompson/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/AP/Elaine Thompson/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from "Don't Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama's Presidency"

Chicago was electric that night. As returns poured in on November 4, 2008, showing that Barack Obama would become the country’s first black president, not a cab could be found. People from every corner of the city streamed into Grant Park to get a glimpse of the man who had helped them find new hope in America.

“It’s been a long time coming,” President-elect Obama told the rapt crowd, “but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

Not for all. Across the nation a wildly different scene was beginning to unfold in the streets of San Francisco. Gay Californians and their allies who had spilled into the Castro to revel in Obama’s victory were learning that a majority of their fellow citizens had likely voted to strip same-sex couples of their marital rights. It wasn’t a right that had come easily.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom had jump-started the state’s marriage equality movement when he ordered city clerks to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on February 12, 2004. It was the first time in the history of the country that a mass of same-sex couples had an opportunity to get marriage licenses. Within the first three days, city officials had already performed nine hundred marriages. Expectant couples—many of whom had been together decades—pitched tents outside of City Hall in hopes of finally getting their turn to commit their lives to one another. Gift bouquets flooded in from across the country—ordered anonymously and delivered to happy couples that had just wed. Twenty-nine days and some four thousand marriages later, the California Supreme Court shut it down. By August, the high court had invalidated every single marriage that had been performed in what came to be known as the Winter of Love.

The following year, the state legislature became the first in the nation to pass a marriage equality bill after a nearly two-year push by LGBT advocates that ultimately succeeded when Latino and African American leaders threw their strong support behind it. But this achievement was just as short-lived; the bill was swiftly vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who asserted that the courts should decide the matter. In 2007, the California legislature delivered a repeat performance after another sustained push by LGBT activists and gay lawmakers, but Schwarzenegger stonewalled again. When the issue finally did reach the state’s high court (which held a 6-to-1 majority of Republican appointees), it ruled 4 to 3 on May 15, 2008, that lesbians and gays did indeed have a constitutional right to marry.

But by the time the dust had settled from election night, the voters had reached a different conclusion by a margin of 52 to 48 percent. The number of states that performed legal same-sex marriages was summarily halved, leaving Massachusetts as the sole marriage equality state in the union. (A little over a week later, though, Connecticut would pick up where California left off as the state’s first same-sex couples began to wed following a Connecticut Supreme Court decision in October affirming their right to marry.)

As I tapped out an election-night story in the wee hours of the morning from my Chicago hotel room, news from the West Coast drama peppered my inbox. I wasn’t just any journalist that night; I was a journalist working for the LGBT news magazine The Advocate. This one was personal. And as I tried to reconcile Grant Park’s euphoria with the Castro’s heartbreak, I faced an uncomfortable truth: the culmination of one great movement was joyously settling into the soul of America just as another movement realized that the most fundamental piece of their humanity was still not welcome, even in a progressive stronghold like California.

Barack Obama had been central to both dramas.


THREE MONTHS EARLIER, Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, had agreed to appear at a two-hour forum with Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, a famously conservative enclave nestled against the southern coastline of a state that is arguably the most liberal in the union. The two presidential hopefuls were there for one reason: to woo the Christian vote. McCain’s rap as a moderate Republican widely distrusted by social conservatives had left a rare opening for Obama. If he could present as a moderate but devout Christian, he might shave a point or two from an influential voting bloc that had risen to prominence in the ’80s with the founding of the socially conservative advocacy groups the Moral Majority and later the Christian Coalition and had largely elude Democrats ever since.

Obama talked the talk: confirming he was a Christian and telling Warren that he was “redeemed” through his faith in Jesus Christ. That set up the question everyone was waiting for. Warren glanced down at his notes, then back up, settled his gaze squarely on the Democratic nominee for president and said simply, “Define marriage.”

Obama did not hesitate. “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian . . . ” he paused as the crowd’s eruption drowned his words. “For me as a Christian,” he continued, looking at Warren resolutely, “it’s also a sacred union. Ya know, God’s in the mix.”

Those thirty critical words became his most definitive and high-profile articulation on the matter that election. Warren, the celebrated author of "The Purpose Driven Life," had served up the perfect platform, televised at a time when voter interest was revving up for the final few months of the ’08 campaign. Obama had to have practiced his response to the marriage question. It was sure to come up in the Evangelical forum and he and his political advisers had clearly concluded that appearing to waver on the issue would make him vulnerable at the polls. The sentiment echoed across the nation, but in California it had a nuclear effect.

Californians that fall faced two historic decisions: The first was whether to elect the nation’s first black president. The second was whether to prohibit same-sex marriages in the Golden State by passing a ballot measure known as Proposition 8.

The effort to pass “Prop 8” was launched in response to the California Supreme Court ruling earlier that year that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry. All told, Prop 8 became one of the nation’s most expensive ballot battles in history, with both sides sinking a combined $80 million-plus into its fate. Though twenty-eight other states had passed ballot initiatives restricting same-sex marriages, California’s measure stood apart because it actually took away rights that had already been granted by the state’s high court, immediately calling into question the validity of some eighteen thousand marriages that had taken place in a five-month legal window.

Obama’s answer to Warren’s inquiry ultimately provided the perfect weapon to anti-gay forces eager to overturn same-sex marriage. Golden State voters would overwhelmingly favor Obama over McCain, and Prop 8 supporters needed some of those Obama voters to defect on the question of marriage equality. They repurposed his pronouncement at Saddleback as the centerpiece of a robocall that targeted portions of the state. The narrator framed Obama’s declaration by telling voters it was the candidate’s definition of marriage “in his own words” and ending with, “Proposition 8 defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Vote ‘yes’ on 8 if you agree with that definition.”

The campaign by Prop 8 supporters worked; Obama won California by twenty-four points on election night, but marriage equality lost by four. The battle over Prop 8 and Obama’s complicity in its passage, however unwitting, marked the beginning of a complicated relationship between the LGBT community and President Obama. On the one hand, he believed himself to be a leader on issues of fairness and equality. On the other, he had willingly deployed an oft-repeated conservative trope about “traditional marriage” in pursuit of his ascension to the highest office in the land. To put it more bluntly, he had used bigotry as a stepping-stone to the presidency and, in so doing, had carelessly harmed LGBT Americans across the nation.

In 2008, it was one thing for politicians to support civil unions as an alternative to full marriage equality. All of Obama’s serious rivals for the Democratic nomination had taken similar positions. In fact, most LGBT Americans accepted the notion that the country wasn’t ready to elect a candidate who supported same-sex marriage. Obama’s charge was that although he didn’t support the freedom to marry, he did endorse providing the same legal rights and benefits to gay couples through civil unions that flowed to heterosexual couples through marriage. Those benefits—more than eleven hundred in total federally—included things as crucial as being eligible to visit one’s partner in a hospital, to get health coverage through a spouse’s employer, or to receive Social Security survivor benefits after a spouse has passed away. It was often a matter of life or death, financial solvency or hardship, and Obama made perfectly clear that these rights should be afforded to same-sex couples.

But for many LGBT Americans, civil unions would not suffice. Marriage was by no means the only gay issue that mattered and for some it wasn’t even the most important, but it is still the institution by which society measures and values love. And to be gay is to be defined by whom you love, so being denied the opportunity to consecrate that love necessarily denigrates the very core of one’s being. Some of the earliest efforts to petition the courts for the right to marry dated back to the ’70s. But that was long before the country or the courts were ready to seriously consider such a right. By the ’90s, however, that consideration began in earnest when several same sex couples sued the state of Hawaii in 1991 for its refusal to issue them marriage licenses. In 1993, the State Supreme Court ruled that the government’s failure to do so may have violated the state’s prohibition on sex discrimination, launching the broader debate as we know it today about the constitutionality of banning same-sex marriage.

But what Obama had asserted at Saddleback was altogether more repugnant than a simple discrepancy over the semantics of marriage versus civil unions. To call marriage “a sacred union” that lesbians and gays were somehow intrinsically disqualified from because “God’s in the mix” was to deem same-sex partnerships unholy and somehow unnatural. In one breath, Obama declared gays too spiritually corrupt for marriage and in the next breath he professed to advance their cause.

This was the type of duality on the topic of LGBT equality that would become a constant source of controversy throughout Obama’s first term as president. Obama considered himself a man of conviction— someone who played “the long game” and transcended Washington politics to govern on his own terms. And yet the politics that he, his campaign, and eventually his administration employed appeared to be driven by precisely the same political homophobia that had consumed Washington since the turn of the millennium. It was a politics of convenience, not urgency, and it was one in which Obama embraced doing things when it “made sense” rather than forcing the issue.

LGBT Americans were not alone in their dismay at the outset of Obama’s presidency. Progressives more broadly saw the heart of their legislative agenda on the environment, reproductive freedom, immigration, and labor organizing largely sidelined during Obama’s first two years in office—which would also be the height of his power. But queer activists, partly because of their profound heartache on election night while much of the nation celebrated, would become the first members of Obama’s base to both vocalize their discontent and mobilize against his administration.

Letter writing and lobbying weren’t enough for them. They sought to disrupt the tidy universe of Washington by repeatedly protesting the very same man for whom 70 percent of them had voted. This meant showing up to the president’s speeches and explicitly shouting him down even as a crowd full of his supporters verbally and sometimes physically intimidated the protesters. It meant pulling financial support from the president and the Democratic Party—a particular leverage point since gay supporters had traditionally contributed heavily to Democratic coffers. And it meant purposely pushing a narrative of discontent in the national media that threatened to undermine President Obama’s reelection.

All of these efforts, taken together, helped LGBT activists accomplish something no other specific progressive constituency did during Obama’s first term: getting a signature piece of legislation across the finish line before Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives to Republicans in January of 2011. On December 18, 2010—just four days before the close of the 111th Congress—the Senate gave final approval to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, ensuring the demise of the military’s nearly twenty-year statutory ban on allowing lesbians and gays to serve openly. That monumental achievement set the stage for a political tipping point that would render LGBT issues and eventually even marriage equality a political winner after decades of defeat.

In 2008, Barack Obama had sacrificed gay marriage in his bid to become the first black president of the United States. It was a position that most Americans agree was born of political necessity. But in 2012, he defied conventional wisdom, endorsed same-sex marriage, and won reelection anyway. His declaration was a watershed moment in the struggle for LGBT equality, foretelling historic wins at the ballot box in 2012 and the Supreme Court in 2013 that opened the floodgates for same-sex marriage nationwide. By the time President Obama stood on the 2013 inaugural platform and likened the struggle of LGBT activists to those of the African-American and women’s-rights activists who came before them, he looked like a man transformed—a leader whom history would finally remember as the faithful steward of a civil rights struggle for a new generation.

Two years later, the White House would be bathed in rainbow to celebrate the birth of same-sex marriage in America. In the Rose Garden, President Obama would tell the nation marriage equality was more than just the consequence of a Supreme Court decision. “It is a consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, who talked to parents,” he said.

“What a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” he added. “They should be very proud. America should be very proud.”

But what happened in those intervening years—between Obama’s statement on Warren’s stage and his unequivocal embrace of gay marriage by 2015—is a matter of some dispute. Was Obama’s evolution born of principle or political expediency? Did he lead the nation or follow it? What personal and political forces moved the man who had accepted an invitation to Saddleback Church knowing full well he would be asked about gay marriage and then had spent nearly four years dodging the issue as president? And what did his 2012 pronouncement in favor of the freedom to marry mean for the trajectory of his presidency?

President Obama, for his part, believed that he was pushing the envelope on gay rights. And to some extent, he was. But his timeline was too slow and the wheels of Washington too glacial for those who felt they were living in a system of gay apartheid—where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Americans lived under a different set of laws than everybody else.

For the most part, these were LGBT activists who had rooted for Obama in 2008 only to find the man they had elected was an incrementalist to his core, not the revolutionary they had voted for. He was neither hero nor villain, neither angel nor demon. But whatever he was, he wasn’t getting the job done in their eyes and therefore they had to leave him and his aides with no good option other than to do the right thing on a host of LGBT issues.

When President Obama finally came out for same-sex marriage in 2012, he was answering a relentless call to justice that had been bending his ear since the very moment he stepped into the Oval Office.

He wasn’t ahead of the times or behind the times, but rather smack dab in the middle of the electorate. And while his pronouncement followed the opinion of half the nation, it still preceded the other half. His endorsement helped clear the way for many who were trailing the trend lines to come along. After all, there was no greater authority in the nation on prejudice than the first African American President of the United States.

Ultimately, the issue of LGBT rights did as much for Obama’s presidency as he did for it, and it will undoubtedly be one of his most consequential legacies, alongside that of health care reform and helping to turn the corner on the devastating economic recession. None of those three accomplishments came without a fight, but two began as the Holy Grail of the administration while the other forced its way onto the first-term agenda. And while the administration never found a way to turn health care reform or the slow-paced economic recovery into votes come election time, Obama’s gains on gay rights scored him badly needed points with his progressive base and became a uniquely positive force at the polls. In fact, equal rights for LGBT Americans grew more popular with each successive year of Obama’s presidency.

President Obama will indeed go down in history as the president who helped launch a new era of equality in America, but it was the LGBT activists themselves who gave that legacy life.

Excerpted from "Don't Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama's Presidency" by Kerry Eleveld. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

By Kerry Eleveld

Kerry Eleveld is a freelance writer, consultant and former White House correspondent for The Advocate.

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