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NY gay marriage decision puts Obama in hot seat

New York’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage has put US President Barack Obama in the hot seat, as his left-wing base grows impatient with what they see as his evasiveness on the issue.


US President Barack Obama has called himself “a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans”, and indeed no other president in American history can claim as many accomplishments when it comes to gay rights.


Obama has declared a federal ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, presided over the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, signed the UN declaration on gay rights, expanded benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees, revised hate crime laws to protect victims of violence motivated by a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, appointed more homosexuals to his administration than any other president, and invited gay couples and their children to the annual White House Easter celebration.

But Obama has stopped short of endorsing gay marriage nationwide (the central plank of the US gay rights movement’s platform), choosing to allow states to decide for themselves whether or not to authorise it.

Now, New York’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage last weekend has put the president in the hot seat, as gay Americans and other segments of Obama’s left-wing base who voted for him in droves grow impatient with what they see as his evasiveness on the issue. In the past few days, newspaper editorialists, activists, and pundits have expressed disappointment in Obama’s reluctance to explicitly endorse gay marriage, and have called for him to do so before the 2012 election.

A stance ‘evolving’ too slowly for some

In recent months, Obama has said that his views on gay marriage are “evolving”, leading many left-wing supporters and some high-profile Democrats like New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand to predict that he will announce his support of same-sex marriage as part of his re-election bid in 2012.

Prominent gay rights activist David Badash (founder of the Web site “The New Civil Rights Movement”) has said he believes Obama privately supports gay marriage, but is waiting for a politically secure moment to say it.

That belief is bolstered by the fact that Obama did, in fact, endorse same-sex marriage in 1996 when running for the Illinois State Senate. By the time he was a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama had changed his position, stating his support for civil unions with full federal benefits, but noting that as a Christian he believed marriage was between a man and a woman.

Analysts and gay rights advocates attributed Obama’s turn-a-round on gay marriage to the need, as a presidential candidate, to appeal to as many voters as possible, both liberal and conservative.

Many of those analysts and advocates are no longer willing to explain or excuse Obama’s shifting stance.

Badash told that Obama is facing more pressure than his predecessors to deliver on gay rights issues partly because he is considered a progressive president, and also because he is a constitutional scholar and a minority himself - but most of all because times are changing.

“We can now point to 5 or 6 major polls conducted over the past year that find a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, and expect their young, well-educated, Democratic President to reflect their values,” he said.

The fact that Obama has not yet made legalising same-sex marriage nation-wide a priority, despite the evidence of a warming public opinion, has irritated gay rights activists. The New York decision has added fire to their efforts to get the president on their side of the debate.

A statement released to journalists Monday by Evan Wolfson, president of “Freedom to Marry” (the campaign to legalise gay marriage nation-wide), read: “President Obama’s hesitation in outright supporting the freedom to marry is the one jarring false note in his dialogue with the American people.” Wolfson alluded to Obama’s “evolving” views, calling on him “to complete the journey of thinking”.

A similar plea was published in an editorial by The New York Times on Monday that chided Obama for “keeping his own views in the shadows” and asked: “Why is Mr. Obama so reluctant to say the words that could lend strength to a national effort now backed by a majority of Americans?”

Well-known CNN journalist Anderson Cooper also criticised the president during his show, saying that Americans were wondering “whether [Obama’s] public opposition to [gay marriage] is real or just political posturing”.

Caught between consistency and change

Some analysts say that given the growing number of states allowing gay marriage and an increasingly supportive US population, Obama will have to endorse marriage equality or risk irrevocably frustrating his base before his re-election bid.

According to Ari Berman, an author and political correspondent for left-wing magazine The Nation, the New York decision “puts further pressure” on Obama. “The president would like to wait until after the 2012 election to announce his support for gay marriage,” Berman said. “But he may not have that luxury.”

Other pundits have taken the opposite position, warning that a change in tack on a big issue is too much of a gamble. “On hot button social issues, the most important thing for a political leader to do is maintain consistency,” Darrell West, a government scholar at the Brookings Institute, told

“Once you start altering your position, it creates even greater controversy.” West predicted that Obama would not endorse same-sex marriage before the 2012 election.

In the meantime, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is credited with pushing hard to get gay marriage legalised since taking office in January, has emerged as a new hero of the US gay rights movement.

At the Gay Pride parade in Manhattan on Sunday, just a day after the law was signed, crowds cheered as Cuomo marched alongside activists and revellers. Many waved signs that read “Cuomo 2016”, in reference to a potential presidential run.

The New York Times’ US politics blogger, Nate Silver, published a post over the weekend comparing Obama’s perceived skittishness on the issue with Cuomo’s proactive approach.

But others, like Washington Post editorialist Jonathan Capehart, have defended Obama, arguing that as president he does not have the “freedom to act boldly” that a state governor has. And if Obama has not attained Cuomo’s “hero” status, he is still widely considered a crucial ally among gay rights activists.

“We believe the president should evolve to a position of support for marriage equality,” Fred Sainz of Human Rights Campaign, the largest US gay rights advocacy group, told “That said, there’s no doubt Obama has been the best president in our nation’s history for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.”

Sainz continued: “Is there more he can and should do? Absolutely. Do we want him to support and embrace marriage equality? Absolutely. But does he deserve to be re-elected so that he can continue his great work on our behalf? Absolutely.”

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