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Windy City Times exclusive: Obama's Marriage Views Changed. WCT Examines His Step Back
by Tracy Baim, News analysis
2009-01-14

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This week's Windy City Times features an exclusive look back at Barack Obama's views on same-sex marriage as they have evolved since his Illinois State Senate campaign in 1996. He has gone from a strong statement in favor of gay marriage in that race to what he viewed as a more practical support of civil unions when he ran for U.S. Senate and then president. This photo is from the "Yes We Can: John Gress on the Campaign Trail with Barack Obama" exhibit opening Friday, Jan. 16, at the third-floor gallery of the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted. Gress's work involves commercial and photojournalism/documentary photography, and the show will run through Sunday, March 1.

Obama answers 1996 gay media

Shown here is a copy of Barack Obama's typed responses to the Outlines newspaper 1996 primary election questionnaire. Obama signed and dated the form Feb. 15, 1996, sending it to Outlines political reporter Trudy Ring. In 2000, Outlines newspaper purchased and merged with Windy City Times.

1996 statement: 'I favor legalizing same-sex marriages'

News analysis by Tracy Baim

During the final weeks of the presidential campaign last fall, several media outlets contacted Windy City Times because of an old Internet story from the 1996 Illinois State Senate race. In that campaign, Outlines newspaper, which merged with Windy City Times in 2000, reported that 13th District candidate Barack Obama supported gay marriage. Reporters wanted to know what exactly Obama had said.

Outlines newspaper, as with the new Windy City Times, surveyed candidates for all levels of elected office, and also reported on the results from pro-gay and progressive groups. We summarized the results in that 1996 article by Trudy Ring, but did not list exact answers to questions. In that article Outlines did note that Obama was a supporter of same-sex marriage; that article was never challenged or corrected by Obama.

Now, in the process of sorting through my 25 years of archives of Chicago gay reporting to eventually post materials on www.ChicagoGayHistory.org, I have found the original surveys on which Ring's reporting was based. Sometimes, it pays to keep those boxes.

IMPACT, which was Chicago's main GLBT political action committee for several years, surveyed Obama and other candidates, as did Outlines. What we are including with this special Presidential Inaugural issue of Windy City Times are copies of the answers to the IMPACT and Outlines questions. For IMPACT, the Obama campaign simply responded on the form. For Outlines, the candidate typed in his answers and signed his letter.

More recently, as Obama has run for higher office, from senator to president, he has further shaped his views on marriage, and now he does not back same-sex marriage. In a January 2004 interview I conducted with Obama at the Windy City Times' office, Obama clearly stated that lack of support for full marriage equality was a matter of strategy rather than principle, but in even more recent comments, it appears he is backing off even further, saying it is more of a religious issue, and also a "state" issue, so he favors civil unions. Both are compromises most gays do not support. First, the U.S. has a separation of church and state, and laws are in place locally and nationally that give benefits based on the very word, "marriage." Therefore, marriage as it is now defined is a government ( both state and federal ) institution that comes with specific financial and social benefits ( taxes, benefits, inheritance, immigration, custody, etc. ) . So, until government eliminates the word "marriage" from state and federal laws, it is a government issue, and that includes the federal government.

Obama's answer to the 1996 Outlines question was very clear: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." There was no use of "civil unions," no compromise whatsoever.

The IMPACT marriage question was a bit less direct. It asked if Obama would support a Marriage Resolution being considered at the time, which read in part "Because marriage is a basic human right and an individual personal choice, RESOLVED, the state should not interfere with same-gender couples who [ choose ] to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of civil marriage." Obama responded: "I would support such a resolution."

What follows are Obama's responses in our Windy City Times 2004 interview, six years after his successful 1996 state Senate run, when he was now running for U.S. Senate:

Tracy Baim: Do you have a position on marriage vs. civil unions?

Barack Obama: I am a fierce supporter of domestic-partnership and civil-union laws. I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue. I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation. I know that's true in the African-American community, for example. And if you asked people, 'should gay and lesbian people have the same rights to transfer property, and visit hospitals, and et cetera,' they would say, 'absolutely.' And then if you talk about, 'should they get married?', then suddenly ...

TB: There are more than 1,000 federal benefits that come with marriage. Looking back in the 1960s and inter-racial marriage, the polls showed people against that as well.

Obama: Since I'm a product of an interracial marriage, I'm very keenly aware of ...

TB: But you think, strategically, gay marriage isn't going to happen so you won't support it at this time?

Obama: What I'm saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed. I think we can get SB 101 passed. I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I'm less concerned about the name. And I think that is my No. 1 priority, is an environment in which the Republicans are going to use a particular language that has all sorts of connotations in the broader culture as a wedge issue, to prevent us moving forward, in securing those rights, then I don't want to play their game.

TB: If Massachusetts gets marriage and this gives momentum to the proposed federal Constitutional amendment against gay marriage?

Obama: I would oppose that.

After Obama's WCT interview, he called to clarify that he opposed the proposed U.S. Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He said he also opposed the two proposed state bills banning same-sex marriage.

During his presidential campaign, he has remained consistent with his 2004 position, but clearly he has moved away from the 1996 statement of "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages." A rose is a rose is a rose, but civil unions are not "marriage" unless 100 percent of the benefits are the same across all states and the federal government.

The full 2004 interview can be found at: www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php .

This week's related story: Putting Obama's questionnaire in context, can be viewed at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php .

Tracy Baim is publisher and executive editor of Windy City Times. She was the co-founder and publisher of Outlines newspaper.


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