President Obama has faced a lot of scrutiny this week for his inconsistent position on marriage equality. This is not the first time the discrepancy has come up — for example, Politico’s Ben Smith was writing about it in January 2009 — but it seems to be the first time it’s gotten traction with the mainstream press. He has consistently opposed attempts to limit the rights of same-sex couples (such as Prop 8), but his position on supporting marriage equality has fluctuated greatly. Where the president’s currently “evolving” position stands today is inconclusive, but here is a timeline of where it has been:
1996 – SUPPORTS MARRIAGE EQUALITY: Then Illinois Senate candidate Obama submitted a survey to a newspaper called Outlines saying, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” (Read the documents here.)
1998 – UNDECIDED ON MARRIAGE: In a political questionnaire, when asked if the “Illinois government should recognize same-sex marriages,” Obama’s response was “Undecided.”
2004 – LESS CONCERNED ABOUT ‘MARRIAGE’: In an interview with the Windy City Times, Obama avoided the issue of marriage, saying “I think we can get civil unions passed. […] I’m less concerned about the name.”
2006–2007 – SUPPORTS CIVIL UNIONS: Obama repeatedly separated his support for secular civil unions from recognizing religious definitions of marriage. In his 2006 bestseller The Audacity of Hope, he supported “a special place for the union of a man and a woman” (pp. 222-223) in society. During a 2007 CNN debate, he said he supports equal rights, but “it’s up to the individual denominations to make a decision” on marriage, a sentiment he echoed at the HRC/logo gay issues debate (PDF).
2008 (February) – SUPPORTS DOMA REPEAL: In a campaign “Open Letter to the LGBT Community,” Obama wrote, “I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act…I believe we should get rid of that statute altogether.”
2008 (August) – OPPOSES MARRIAGE: In an interview with Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church, Obama defined marriage by saying, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian…it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” Even though Obama still supported civil unions at this point, his statements drew a bold line between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.
2009 – SUPPORTS CIVIL UNIONS: In his 2009 Pride Month Proclamation, President Obama reiterated his administration’s support for “civil unions and Federal rights for LGBT couples.”
2010 (May) – SUPPORTS DOMA REPEAL: In his 2010 Pride Month Proclamation, he went further, revisiting his “Open Letter” promises by suggesting “we must give committed gay couples the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple, and repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.” This statement implied a recognition that there are, in fact, married same-sex couples. By this point in time, same-sex marriage was legal in Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
2010 (October) – EVOLVING ON MARRIAGE: It was during an interview with AMERICAblog’s Joe Sudbay that the President began “evolving” on the issue. He admitted, “I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage,” but added that “I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with” and “I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I think a lot about.”
2011 (February) – GRAPPLING WITH MARRIAGE: Though the decision to no longer defend DOMA was a big step toward marriage equality, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama was still “grappling” with his personal views on the issue.
2011 (May) – NO MENTION OF COUPLES: Unlike in the previous two years, the White House’s 2011 Pride Month Proclamation notably omitted any mention of recognizing same-sex relationships, through civil unions or otherwise.
2011 (June 17) OPPOSED MARRIAGE IN 1996?: White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer told Netroots Nation that the president was not the one who filled out the pro-marriage equality questionnaire in 1996 (i.e. it was fake, though it had Obama’s signature). The White House distanced itself from Pfeiffer’s remarks, telling Metro Weekly, “Dan was not familiar with the history of the questionnaire that was brought up today.”
2011 (June 19) YES HE SIGNED IT, NO HE DIDN’T SUPPORT MARRIAGE: According to the New York Times, Pfeiffer was “mistaken.” Obama did fill out the 1996 questionnaire, but he was “really referring to civil unions.”
2011 (June 20) STILL EVOLVING ON MARRIAGE: Carney told the Washington Blade and Metro Weekly that Pfeiffer was actually referring to “another questionnaire” and refused to say anything more about the president’s position on the issue.
Today is the last chance for marriage equality to pass in New York, and the president will be speaking at an LGBT fundraiser in New York City tomorrow. Regardless of the outcome of the bill, the speech could likely be a defining moment for the president on this issue.