If I could ask President Obama exactly one question—and if he were forced to answer it honestly—it would be, “How did you really feel about gay marriage between 1996 and 2012?”
See, in 1996, when the future commander-in-chief was running for the Illinois State Senate, he responded to a questionnaire from a Chicago LGBT newspaper by writing, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
Sixteen years later, sitting in the most powerful office on planet Earth, Obama said to ABC’s Robin Roberts, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
There you had it: Two totally consistent positions on an explosive social issue from a brave political leader acting on principle.
There was only one problem: For the entire 16-year period in between those two statements, Obama was staunchly and unambiguously opposed to same-sex marriage whenever he was asked about it—not least during his 2004 Senate campaign and his initial run for president—explaining that his Christian faith dictates that marriage is an institution between one man and one woman.
Indeed, for a solid eight years or so, Obama’s public stance on gay marriage was more regressive than Dick Cheney’s.
Among many LGBT folk, there was always the suspicion that, until 2012, Obama was never quite on the level about what his true feelings on this subject were. Because he was such a proud liberal on so many other domestic matters, because he cared so deeply about civil rights for all citizens—because he was just so goddamned smart!—we assumed his public opposition to equal marriage rights (while supporting civil unions) was an act of ideological hedging by an ambitious, savvy political tactician. If he believed in marriage equality in his heart (as his response to that questionnaire suggested), he was not prepared to gamble his political future on it until a majority of the public agreed with him—as it finally did by the end of his first term.
Here, in other words, was a classic example of President Obama “leading from behind”—an executive style that sometimes comes across as not leading at all.
Now, I realize—on this final full day of Obama’s presidency—that to dwell on the inner workings of the man’s soul rather than on the impact of his policies is to risk missing the forest for the trees. All things considered—regardless of when he officially and wholeheartedly got on board—Obama has been the greatest thing to happen to the LGBT community in the entire history of the world.
It now seems like a lifetime ago, but don’t forget that when Obama was sworn in on January 20, 2009, same-sex marriage was legal in exactly two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and thanks to the Defense of Marriage Act, even those unions were not recognized on the federal level. Meanwhile, gay citizens could not serve openly in the Armed Forces, HIV-positive foreigners could not travel to the United States at all, workplace anti-discrimination measures for LGBT people were largely a joke, and the notion of gender-neutral bathrooms was scarcely a twinkle in anybody’s eye.
Fast-forward eight years, and you realize that we now live in an entirely different country from the one George W. Bush left us with. Complain all you want about feet-dragging and unfinished business—believe me, you’ll find plenty of material to work with—but there is no denying that President Obama’s reign has been a golden age for LGBT rights unparalleled in human history. Indeed, it would not be much of a stretch to conclude that our 44th president has provided more hope and protection to his gay countrymen than our first 43 presidents put together.
Not that he accomplished all (or any) of this by himself. Apart from signing an executive order every now and again (itself no small thing), all the major breakthroughs on this front—the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passage of the Hate Crimes Protection Act, Obergefell v. Hodges, and so forth—were the culmination of years, if not decades, of grunt work by untold scores of activists, writers and other ordinary people in pursuit of an impossible dream. Many of those folks didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but their impact on subsequent generations is profound beyond measure.
In truth, Obama’s primary role in effecting a more gay-friendly America was his stepping back and simply allowing it to happen. Rather than constantly getting in the middle of things—no doubt out of fear that it could backfire—he made a habit of steadily—even stealthily—setting the tone and laying the legal groundwork whereby the barriers to a more just society could be toppled without any resistance at the top. (The Justice Department refusing to enforce DOMA in 2011 was a classic, crucial example of this.) Notwithstanding his opposition to marriage rights until 2012, the president made clear his desire to be an LGBT ally from the very beginning. In the long run, his actions spoke for themselves.
To be sure, there was a great deal of luck in his occupying the Oval Office at the exact moment when defending gay rights suddenly became cool, and we cannot overlook the multitude of cosmic coincidences that conspired to make Obama such a godsend for the gay movement, independent of how much (or how little) it might’ve interested him otherwise.
That said, it is very difficult to imagine the United States having progressed this far under a President John McCain or a President Mitt Romney—two men who didn’t give a damn about gay people and wouldn’t have lifted a finger to make their lives better. To note the confluence of Obama’s rise with the wide acceptance of the dignity of LGBT people may be historically correct, but it also shortchanges the monumental import of Obama’s efforts to nudge the country, ever-so-slowly, in the right direction.
I’m sure I will never have the opportunity to ask Obama my original question face-to-face—namely, what did he really think and when did he really think it?
Then again, perhaps I will. Not to brag, but I did briefly meet him once before.
In the fall of 2007, the then-senator and presidential candidate gave a characteristically rousing speech near the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common at dusk. There were hundreds of spectators, but I arrived early and found a spot right in front, leaned up against the metal fence dividing the audience from the candidate. After he spoke, he glided along the throng of cheering admirers, shaking the hands of everyone within reach, including me. I don’t recall if our eyes met, but I appreciated the chance to physically connect with a man who, at that time, was considered by most liberals as more-or-less the second coming of Christ.
I didn’t completely buy into the hype myself. First of all, he was then trailing Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the polls and couldn’t possibly secure the Democratic nomination. And second, even in the innocent days of 2007, I knew better than to expect that any president, no matter how brilliant or charismatic, could solve all the problems in the world with a mere flick of his hand. (While Obama himself never claimed the job would be that easy, his most devoted fans certainly got that impression.)
With this in mind, it was all I could do that evening to shout the words “good luck” in his general direction as he let go of my hand and continued on. I admired the hell out of him, but I knew he would never actually become commander-in-chief. After eight embarrassing years of George W. Bush, what right did we Americans have to be led by someone so dazzling, so worldly, so intelligent, and so…normal?
We didn’t deserve him, yet in the end we elected him twice. He was the president we needed, and only in retrospect will we fully understand just how lucky we’ve been since January 20, 2009. We may never see the likes of him ever again, but then the miracle is that we got him once. All we can do now is be grateful.