Inside Story: US 2012
What is Obama risking by backing gay unions?
We ask if the US president should go a step further by offering constitutional protection for gay and lesbian couples.
Last Modified: 11 May 2012 09:01

Previously, Barack Obama, the US president, had supported civil unions for same sex couples, but he had not endorsed marriage.

Since 2010 he has maintained that his views were "evolving" on the subject. On Wednesday, that changed.

Obama became the first sitting president to back same-sex marriage. It was a historic and monumental public announcement.

But while stating that those were his personal views, he insisted that it is up to the individual US states to decide.

"The gay and lesbian rights community has been extraordinarily effective at twisting Barack Obama's arms and they've gotten not everything but a lot of what they wanted out of him, they've been extremely effective."

- Adam Serwer, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine

Effectively it means that he is not endorsing the notion that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the US constitution that can never be taken away. And so much debate has ensued since then.

Obama's statement came just hours after voters in the key swing state of North Carolina voted by a landslide in favour of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, becoming the 30th state in the US to do so.

The North Carolina vote underscores the discrepancy between opinion polls suggesting a plurality in the US supporting same-sex marriage, and the reality at the ballot box.
That defeat for marriage equality underscores the political risk which Obama, by publicly endorsing gay marriage, is taking in November's presidential elections.

This is what the US president said in his interview with the US network ABC: "For me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married and I continue to believe that this is an issue that will be worked out at the local level…What I'm saying is that different states are coming to different conclusions…"

Earlier this year, internal documents were revealed by a court which outlined some of the tactics used by the National Organization for Marriage.

One document detailed the organisation's plan to pit the gay community against the Latino and African-American communities over the issue of homosexual marriage.

"The same poll that showed North Carolina overwhelming supporting the amendment also showed that they didn't understand it… 60 per cent did not understand what it was going to do..."

- William Robinson, a regional field director for the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families

Among other things, the report said: "The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks – two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energise and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage, develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right, provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots. No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party..."

The American public's view on gay marriage however has also evolved over the years. In the mid-90s a large majority of Americans were against gay marriage by 40 points. But throughout the last decade the views have gradually changed with the latest figures showing 50 per cent of Americans supporting same-sex weddings while 48 per cent opposed them.

So, how much of a risk is it for Obama to endorse same-sex marriage? And should he go further by taking the issue out of the jurisdiction of individual states, and support the granting of legal protection under the US constitution for gay and lesbian couples?

Joining presenter Shihab Rattansi on Inside Story: US 2012 to discuss these issues are guests: William Robinson, a regional field director for the Coalition to Protect All North Carolina Families, a group promoting marriage equality for all; Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, a group aiming to protect traditional marriage values between a man and a woman; and Adam Serwer, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine.

"It was an internal memo [from four years ago] and it was wrong because we're not creating this wedge. This is a reality that the Democratic party is increasingly moving to marginalise those voices that strongly oppose same-sex marriage…and is going to have electoral repercussions."

- Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage


  • Amendment One is a North Carolina constitutional ban on gay marriage, voters in the state approved it on Tuesday
  • The last sodomy laws in the US were struck down by the supreme court in 2003
  • Gay marriage is illegal in 42 US states, while 30 states have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage
  • Gay marriage is legal in six states and the District of Colombia, while five states allow same-sex civil unions but not marriage
  • The state of California passed Proposition 8 in 2008 banning same-sex marriage. It previously allowed same-sex marriage but revoked it after five months
  • Republicans in the state of Colorado blocked a vote on a bill on civil unions in a special session on Tuesday
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