During Barack Obama’s 2008 run for the White House, he was asked at the HRC/Logo forum about his position on same-sex marriage. His responses went like this:
…I am a strong supporter not of a weak version of civil unions, but of a strong version, in which the rights that are conferred at the federal level to persons who are part of the same sex union are compatible. When it comes to federal rights, the over 1,100 rights that right now are not being given to same sex couples, I think that’s unacceptable, and as president of the United States, I am going to fight hard to make sure that those rights are available.
My view is that we should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word “marriage,” which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given to couples, in terms of hospital visitation, in terms of whether or not they can transfer property or Social Security benefits and so forth. … I…would continue to support a civil union that provides all the benefits that are available for a legally sanctioned marriage. And it is then, as I said, up to religious denominations to make a determination as to whether they want to recognize that as marriage or not.
Generally, he was supportive of what he called “strong civil unions,” but he did not want to call a same-sex union a marriage. Even though he opposed Prop 8, his reluctance to address marriage directly gave Prop 8 supporters an opening to mischaracterize his position to African-American and other voters in California.
But there was a time however when Obama felt differently and wasn’t afraid to say so. In a Windy City Timeshas a special inaugural edition, they combed through their archives for material from Obama’s 1996 Illinois State Senate race.
The first item from their archives was a questionnaire sent to Obama by IMPACT, which was Chicago’s main LGBT political action committee. On question 7 of the questionnaire, IMPACT asked about same-sex marriage in the state of Illinois. Obama’s answer went like this (his handwritten answer in boldface):
7. Do you endorse the Marriage Resolution, a statement to of support for the right of same-gender individuals to marry:
Because marriage is a basic human right and an individual personal choise.
RESOLVED, the state should not interfere with same-gender couples who chose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of civil marriage.
I would support such a resolution.
During the same campaign, the Outlines newspaper (which later merged with Windy City Times) sent a questionnaire as well. Obama’s typewritten response to question three was more direct:
I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages
By the time then-State Sen. Obama was running for the U.S. Senate however, his position shifted. In a 2004 interview with Windy City Times, his answer morphed into the one which is familiar today:
I am a fierce supporter of domestic- partnership and civil-union laws. I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue.
I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation. I know that’s true in the African-American community, for example. And if you asked people, ‘should gay and lesbian people have the same rights to transfer property, and visit hospitals, and et cetera,’ they would say, ‘absolutely.’ And then if you talk about, ‘should they get married?’, then suddenly …
What I’m saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed. I think we can get SB 101 passed. I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I’m less concerned about the name. And I think that is my No. 1 priority, is an environment in which the Republicans are going to use a particular language that has all sorts of connotations in the broader culture as a wedge issue, to prevent us moving forward, in securing those rights, then I don’t want to play their game.
In 2008, there was no mention of his position on same-sex marriage as being a “strategic” position. That part of his answer has been dropped altogether. Otherwise, his message has been consistent since 2004. But it’s sadly a far cry from where he first started.