Obama’s support of same-sex marriage: A game-changer?

Assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio

This has been an unexpectedly dramatic year for same-sex marriage, and this past week is no exception.

Not only did North Carolina voters handily pass a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage this week but President Barack Obama also publicly announced his support for legalized same-sex marriage.

First, North Carolina. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been full of commentary and outrage over the passage of yet another constitutional amendment in North Carolina. The passage of this marriage ban is neither new nor surprising; 29 other states have passed similar constitutional amendments at the ballot since 1998, and 19 of those prohibited both same-sex marriage and broader relationship recognitions for same-sex couples.

What is new is the surprise and outrage. Much attention was paid to California Proposition 8 and Maine Question 1, which were both votes on legalized same-sex marriage. However, there has not been a vote on one of these same-sex marriage bans since 2008. Before 2004 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, when same-sex marriage bans passed in states like Alaska, Nebraska and Nevada, there was little large-scale public outrage. Same-sex marriage was not legal anywhere in the United States; it was not shocking that voters were opposed to it.

But things have changed. As more states legalize same-sex marriage and American adults increasingly support it, there is a growing sense that the tide has turned. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of states that recognize or allow same-sex marriages tripled. Indeed, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, excluding Maryland and Washington state, seven states have same-sex marriage benefits and an additional three states recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. I think that some of this outrage and attention on North Carolina is that it is “business as usual” during a time in which people expect change.

Second, what is not “business as usual” is that Obama just became the first sitting president to publicly support same-sex marriage. Former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Vice President Al Gore have all come forward to support same-sex marriage after their terms ended. There has already been much speculation on how this might change the presidential election, support for same-sex marriage nationally, and ballot measures on legal same-sex marriage in Maryland, Maine, and Washington in the fall. In addition, voters in Minnesota and potentially the states of New Mexico, West Virginia, Wyoming, and Rhode Island will face same-sex marriage bans similar to Amendment 1 in North Carolina. There are predictions already that Obama’s statement may increase support for same-sex marriage in Maryland, where approximately 30% of voters are African American. In this case, the stakes are high; voters will be making decisions on actual same-sex marriage rights that were passed by the Maryland legislature this year. Right now the polls show divided support for same-sex marriage, and a small increase in public opinion could make the difference between retaining same-sex marriage and losing it.

It is unclear, however, how much people’s opinions will change due to presidential opinion. Opinions about same-sex marriage can be deep-seated, connected to larger belief systems about family and gender, and thus difficult to change. In an interview with a national LGBT organizer with more than 30 years of campaign experience, this organizer also described these opinions as “egg-shell thin”—that they may seem hard and unchangeable but can be transformed by a conversation that breaks through that egg shell.


Amy Stone is author of Gay Rights at the Ballot Box and assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University in San Antonio.

“Amy L. Stone crafts a compelling, deeply textured portrayal of the more than 200 anti-gay ballot campaigns in the U.S. since 1974. Through interviews with movement leaders and other sources, Stone deftly analyzes the tension between winning campaigns and building a sustainable movement, between national, urban activists and local, rural communities, as well as debates over tactics and messaging. Gay Rights at the Ballot Box is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the central, disturbing role anti-gay politics has played in contemporary U.S. politics.”
—Sean Cahill, Ph.D., Fenway Institute and New York University

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