How Gay Marriage Went From the Fringe to the White House

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May 9 2012 6:26 PM

Then Comes Marriage

How gay marriage went from the fringe to the White House.

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Newlyweds Russell Kemp and Tom Whalen with their children.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Flying Television

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a state’s right to prosecute two men for having sex. Today, 26 years later, the president of the United States affirmed the right of two men to marry.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

How did this happen? How did same-sex marriage go from a nonstarter—an idea so farfetched that nobody even polled the question—to a policy that half the country supports?

To answer that question, watch the interview President Obama gave to ABC News this afternoon. Obama didn’t answer the marriage question like a president. He answered it like an ordinary person. In his responses, you can see the cultural changes that have moved millions of Americans in the same direction.

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Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts that he and his wife are “practicing Christians” and that to endorse same-sex marriage would “put us at odds with the views of others” in their faith. He said he had previously withheld support for gay marriage because:

"I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs … [But] over the course of several years, as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together …


Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table, and we’re talking about their friends and their parents, and Malia and Sasha, 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 in perspective."

What changed wasn’t Obama’s reflection on the idea of same-sex marriage. What changed was the people with whom he identified. Initially, he held back out of sensitivity to fellow Christians. Now he’s more sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of homosexuals: his staff, parents of his daughters’ friends, and probably the same Democratic donors whose acquaintance moved Vice President Biden to accept same-sex marriage.

This couldn’t have happened in the days when homosexuality was isolated, prosecuted, and silenced. Back then, most people either didn’t know homosexuals personally or didn’t realize that people they knew were gay. Once the closet door opened, a cascade of changes followed. People began to see whose feelings were hurt and whose aspirations were denied. Sensitivities began to shift. If you cross-tabulate poll results on homosexuality going back several decades, you’ll see a sweeping realignment driven by two underlying factors: a rising belief that homosexuality is innate, and increasing awareness that some of our friends, neighbors, and relatives are gay.

But this trend alone didn’t guarantee the emergence of same-sex marriage as a politically viable idea. To reach that stage, something else had to happen: Same-sex couples had to succeed. They had to prove they could stick together and raise children.

That’s what Americans have been watching since the closet door opened. Social conservatives said homosexuality was a sin. They said gay people were dysfunctional. They said having gay parents was bad for kids. They said open homosexuality would degrade morals and harm society.

It hasn’t happened. People like the Obamas now know too many same-sex couples who live by the same values that churches prescribe for straight couples. “As I see friends, families, children of gay couples who are thriving, you know, that has an impact on how I think about these issues,” Obama said last fall. He extended that observation today, citing “members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” The picture of homosexuality as an inherent moral threat has become unsustainable.

Policies, too, have changed. In today’s interview, Obama said he had hesitated to endorse gay marriage “in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient” and in part because many people objected to using “the word marriage” for same-sex unions. He’s now surrendering that word. But the legal rights that underlie it have been falling into place for years. The final step, calling it marriage, has become easier now that most Americans have made their peace with the idea of same-sex civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Still, because Obama is a politician, one more thing had to change: polls. Why have politicians been sensitive to voters who oppose gay marriage? It isn’t just to avoid hurting their feelings. It’s because those voters might throw them out of office. In 2004, public opposition to gay marriage was clear enough—55 to 42 percent in the Gallup poll, 60 to 29 in Pew surveys—to make it a wedge issue for Republicans. Now those polls show an even split, with gay marriage marginally favored: 50 to 48 according to Gallup, 46 to 44 according to Pew. If same-sex marriage were still toxic, Obama would still be ducking it. He’s endorsing it because he no longer thinks it might cost him reelection.

We’ll find out in November whether he’s right.

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