TOPICS > Politics

Obama Supports Same-Sex Marriage: Now What?

May 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama said Wednesday that he now believes "same-sex couples should be able to get married." Judy Woodruff and author Kerry Eleveld discuss the president's "evolution" on the subject, then Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry and the Rev. Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church debate the legal future of same-sex marriage.

GWEN IFILL: The president’s announcement that he personally supports same-sex marriage ended years of uncertainty and days of political upheaval. It came in an interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts for ABC News.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With that statement, President Obama became the first American president to endorse same-sex marriage.

Until now, he had stuck with what he said back in 2010.

BARACK OBAMA: My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, today, the president offered this explanation for why he had waited.

BARACK OBAMA: I’ve stood on the side of broader equality for the LGBT community.

And I had hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought civil unions would be sufficient, and I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, you know, the word marriage was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But then came Sunday, and this statement by Vice President Biden, vaulting the issue back into the political spotlight.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying one another are entitled to the same exact rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, today, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney reinforced his own position against gay marriage.

MITT ROMNEY (R): But my view is that marriage itself is a relationship between a man and a woman. And that’s my own preference. I know other people have differing views. This is a very tender and sensitive topic, as are many social issues. But I have the same view that I have had since — well, since running for office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, yesterday, voters in North Carolina overwhelmingly approved an amendment the state constitution banning same-sex marriage.

In all, 30 states have now taken that step.

We turn now to Kerry Eleveld, an author and journalist who covered the Obama White House for “The Advocate,” a national gay and lesbian news magazine.

Kelly Eleveld, thank you for joining us.

First of all, do you know why the president decided to make this statement now?

KERRY ELEVELD, author/journalist: Well, it just — based on your reporting, too, you just saw in the piece that you put out the conversation around this had just really amped up. I mean the tenor had just gotten really high and heated.

And I think that Vice President Biden’s comments, which most gays and lesbians really, really welcomed, because he talked about marriage as being a commitment and how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans wanted to participate in that type of commitment ceremony and have it be called a marriage, those sort of advanced the conversation and people were really excited to see that.

And then you had White House aides trying to sort of walk back that statement. And I think what happened is, you know, that really worked against them. And so the president was sort of put in a position where he needed to clarify. If you watched the White House press briefing on Monday, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, I almost felt sorry for him.

He — the only thing he could really say is, I have no updates for you. And he said it about 13 to 15 times during that briefing. So the White House sort of had to do something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell — tell us, how did his position evolve? He talked about it evolving.


Well, it sort of devolved before it evolved, to be perfectly honest. Originally, in 1996, when he was running for state Senate in Illinois, he signed a candidate questionnaire that said “I favor legalizing same-sex marriage” — and he used the specific words “same-sex marriage” — and would oppose any efforts to prohibit same-sex marriages.

So then — though I think as he went along in his candidacies, you know, he was running in Chicago. It’s a pretty liberal area. But then he runs for statewide Senate in Illinois, and that’s a slightly more moderate electorate. He tamped back down at that point, took it back and said, well, I favor civil unions.

And then that was — civil unions — being pro-civil union was his position all throughout 2004 and then the 2008 election. And, of course, there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure for him to change that in the 2008 election, because the people he was duking it out for — with, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton at the time, they held the very same position.

And, you know, LGBT advocates seemed sort of okay at that point with letting them settle into that position in 2008.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly and finally, how big a thing is it that he has come out now and made this statement?

KERRY ELEVELD: I don’t think I can overstress how important this is.

This moves the conversation forward across the country. So this — these conversations that people are having at their kitchen tables, for people who were sort of waffling, you know, I think this is a huge positive step for them to say, okay, well, the president of the United States thinks this is an important thing, and he wanted to affirm it.

And then, on top of that, if we ever have something go to the Supreme Court, I think it will be very important what the highest officeholder in our land thinks about same-sex marriage, as well as the polling, as well as how many states have legalized it. We like to pretend that the Supreme Court lives in a bubble, but they do not.

They — you know, those justices live among us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kerry Eleveld, thank you very much.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And we get two views now on the president’s announcement and its significance.

Evan Wolfson is the president and founder of Freedom to Marry. It’s a campaign to win same-sex marriage nation wide. And the Rev. Harry Jackson, he is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md. He’s presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, and he is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.

Rev. Jackson, what does it mean to you, what the president said?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, Hope Christian Church: Well, I believe he’s been dealing with this for a long time.

And the motivation was to ramp up kind of momentum for the same-sex marriage movement. As was stated earlier, I think, at the Supreme Court level, they’re going to have to wage — or gauge, rather, whether this is a really big deal for Americans or not. And I think my side has got to really step up and let itself — their cards be known or put our cards out there.

And in Maryland, specifically, I think there’s going to be a backlash, in that our efforts were going very well to get signatures already. But I think even more people will come out, sign up and say, I’m against same-sex marriage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Signatures you mean on a petition to outlaw gay marriage in the state of Maryland?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Exactly, attempting to put a marriage amendment on the ballot this November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which, in Maryland, it’s now legal.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: It’s now legal, but it hasn’t gone into effect yet.


Evan Wolfson, what about you? What does this — let me just ask you first, what does it mean to you what the president said this?

EVAN WOLFSON, Freedom to Marry: I think it means a great deal to have the president of the United States show his moral leadership and say that this is a question of fairness and treating others as we would want to be treated and upholding the guarantees that all Americans are entitled to under the law.

This is not about telling churches what to do. This is about who can get a civil or legal marriage license from the government. But what also made it really meaningful was the heartfelt, personal way in which both the president and the vice president talked about how they had changed their mind, how they had opened their hearts.

They talked about conversations with real families, with their own families, and how it triggered their thinking about what the right way to treat other people is. And I think that kind of personal, heartfelt engagement is exactly the journey that a majority of Americans have been on, and it will help others who have been wrestling with this question resolve on the side of fairness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Rev. Jackson, do you see this helping the cause of those who favor the legalization of gay marriage, because, right now, most states say it’s not legal for people of the same sex to marry?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: No, I don’t think it will really help them.

I think it will really bring this thing to a head, meaning a lot of folks feel like, I can just sit and wait and it will take care of itself. I think the president weighing in will cause a response. And I think in November. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Across the country, you’re saying?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Really across the country.

There are four other jurisdictions, including Maryland, who are going to be looking at a marriage amendment. And, again, because of the Supreme Court’s intervention eventually on this issue, the nation has to get involved. And I think we’re going to finally say, hey, we’re going to deal with this now in this season of time.

And I think you’re going to see a polarization first, and then the Supreme Court is going to have to deal with it. And we’re going to win in Maryland. There’s going to be an amendment, and the law is going to be struck down. All that will have to be dealt with at that level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Wolfson, do you see the public reaction playing out the way Rev. Jackson does?

EVAN WOLFSON: No, I think it’s just the opposite.

I think that the more Americans have had a chance to not talk about hypotheticals and abstractions, but to talk about real people, couples building a life together, sharing love, sharing commitment, wanting to celebrate and strengthen their families, raising kids, worrying about their aging parents, Americans have moved, as the president did today, as the vice president talked about, in the direction of embracing the freedom to marry.

And, you know, we ended marriage discrimination here in New York about a year ago, and gay people were able to begin marrying, families were able to celebrate, loved ones, non-gay as well as gay, were able to witness and to hold those couples accountable for their vows of commitment to one another. And the gay people didn’t use up all the marriage licenses. Nothing bad happened. No one was hurt.

But families were strengthened. And that’s exactly why Americans have moved in the direction of support for the freedom to marry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of that, Rev. Jackson, this personal reaction that he’s describing that may happen on the part of individuals who are gay and their family members and loved ones?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: I think the whole nation is going to look at this personally.

Myself, I think about what will happen to our kids, what are they going to be taught at the youngest of ages, “Heather Has Two Mommies” at a second-grade level. Is that what we really want to have happen? Is this more of a recruiting mechanism for the gay lifestyle, as opposed to a genuine, legitimate absence of civil rights?

I haven’t seen a lot of gay people in the back of the bus recently or lynched or some of the things that blacks went through. So we have got to. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you saying?



BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: I’m saying that the tenor today of what it means to be gay or lesbian, there is not that same kind of oppression and opposition, though it’s always bandied about that it’s just like the black civil rights movement.

I think it’s really more a conceptual thing, a brass ring that folks are going after. But it may be an experiment that begins to shift the very nature of and the foundation of our marital system in our great United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But just so that I understand, are you. . .


JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . predicting that that’s the kind of reaction people — that there’s going to be a much more negative, much more even violent reaction?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: No, no, no, no, no. Violence is not on the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: I’m saying the imagery for the last four years at least has been that black civil rights and the gay rights issue are one and the same. They’re different time frames, but they’re the same kind of civil rights issue.

I think you’re — changing the definition of marriage is really apples and oranges. It’s not like the black civil rights structure, per se. Many African-Americans feel that way. And that’s why they voted against same-sex marriage in Florida, also in California, et cetera.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Wolfson, what about that?

EVAN WOLFSON: But you know something?



Well, first of all, marriage is not defined by who’s denied it. There’s enough marriage to share. And when gay couples get married, it means they take on a commitment in law that matches the personal commitment they have made in life. It doesn’t change anybody else’s marriage. It doesn’t take away anybody else’s marriage. And one is saying the. . .

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: It may change the institution, though. That’s the issue.

EVAN WOLFSON: Well, you know, I understand that you say that.

But, you know, in Washington, D.C., when we ended marriage discrimination and couples began getting married, and most of those couples who got married were African-American couples, couples raising kids, couples raising — couples worrying about their parents and taking care.

Those families are stronger today in the African-American community, as in Latino communities, as in communities across the country. And no one has had anything taken away from them. There’s — there’s no way in which couples sharing in marriage and families getting stronger takes anything away from anyone else.

But what it does do is make those couples better able to deal with tough economic times, to be there for one another, and to have the meaning and respect and love and commitment celebrated by their family and loved ones, their children, their parents and the country.

And you’re not able to point to a single, actual, real consequence, but what you try to do is bring up these kinds of talking points that have been bandied about, but have been proven to not be true in Washington, D.C., in Massachusetts, in Connecticut, in Iowa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s let him — let’s let him. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why don’t you respond?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: The divorce laws are being changed in D.C. as we stand. Folks have wanted to get unmarried who were — gotten married under the same-sex marriage law.

So it isn’t all. . .

EVAN WOLFSON: But don’t non-gay people sometimes get divorced?

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: Well, let me talk. You got a chance. You had your chance.


BISHOP HARRY JACKSON: So it isn’t all peaches and cream.

And the projection that everybody who disagrees is a bigot is really over the top. And, you know, the talking down, all of this stuff is really not fair, because we’re making an experiment with what will happen to the next generations of Americans and what the very, very foundation of the greatest institution, the foundational institution of all humankind looks like in the years to come. It’s a big decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Wolfson, one final comment.

EVAN WOLFSON: I think — yeah, I think President Obama is a pretty thoughtful, serious guy. And he obviously put a lot of time and thought and talked to a lot of people before announcing his position today and really resolving this question.

I don’t think this president would take a position that he thought was going to do damage. I think what he’s doing is standing up for families and for freedom in our country. And our country’s going to be better for it. And I salute the president for his stand today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, we thank you both for being here this evening.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Wolfson in New York, Rev. Jackson here in Washington, thank you.

EVAN WOLFSON: Thank you.