This past week, the Obama administration made an unprecedented move in its filing of an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in which it encouraged the court to strike down Proposition 8. The 2008 passage of California’s now-infamous ballot initiative ensured that same-sex marriage would remain illegal under the provisions of California’s state constitution.
The filing, along with his interview with ABC in which he voiced his support, has contributed to Obama’s image as the “first gay president,” a title bestowed upon him by Newsweek last May.
Though his support for same-sex marriage should absolutely be commended as a huge step forward for equal rights, this progress is not all his doing. Rather than being a reflection of Obama’s superior leadership or courage, the president’s outspokenness on the issue of gay marriage parallels society’s overall shift toward tolerance and support of gay rights.
Like many Americans, Obama’s record on gay marriage has been far from flawless. When he was running for the Illinois state senate in 1996, he signed a questionnaire for a gay-friendly Chicago publication in favor of legalizing gay marriage in the state, but answered in a 1998 questionnaire that he was undecided on the very same issue. And during his successful 2004 run for the U.S. Senate, he stated that “marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman” when discussing his Christian background.
This brings us to his tenure as president, a period which has been marked by an unprecedented support for legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans’ support for gay marriage has increased in the past decade while opposition to it has decreased. In 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage while 35 percent supported it. As of November 2012, 48 percent of Americans supported marriage equality while just 43 percent stood in opposition.
Focusing on Obama’s former inconsistency regarding marriage equality is counterintuitive. Though some of his changing stances in the past were likely a function of political expediency, they are for the most part consistent with the American public’s vacillations on the very same issue.
The president acknowledged this fact in a press conference last Friday: “The same evolution that I’ve gone through is an evolution that the country as a whole has gone through, and I think it is a profoundly positive thing.”
To over-emphasize strides toward equal marriage rights for all is to understate the progress made by Americans themselves toward greater tolerance. And to term Obama the “first gay president” is anachronistic in that it ignores the significant paradigm shift that has occurred in past years; as Americans have come to recognize the absurdity of restricting marriage on the basis of sexual orientation.
Though the legal battles are far from over and there is still much to be done in advancing nationwide support for gay marriage, society has arguably reached a point where the president’s support for marriage equality should not be shocking. Instead, the public’s significant increase in support for equal marriage rights should make presidential support something to be expected.
Progress toward marriage equality should not be solely attributed to the efforts of a lone crusader who just happens to be the president, but to the increasing tolerance of a citizenry that he happens to represent.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in Middle East studies and political science. Her column “Homeland” runs Wednesdays.