/ 14 November 2012

Deep Read: Same-sex marriage and the Obama presidency

Revelers display US and gay pride flags as they celebrate the legalisation of gay marriage in Washington state.
Revelers display US and gay pride flags as they celebrate the legalisation of gay marriage in Washington state.

On Tuesday November 6, Barack Hussein Obama was elected to his second term as president of the United States. He will be the fourth democratic president in the last 100 years to serve two terms, solidifying his legacy in US history.

Receiving considerably less attention, particularly outside of the United States, are the great strides made on the marriage equality front and the president's role in that regard. For the first time ever, the right to same-sex marriage was passed by referendum in Maine, Maryland and Washington. This happened not only once, but three times in the same night.

Given that same-sex marriage had been put on the ballot in a number of states and failed over 30 times in the recent past, this was a crucial step towards progress that also showed a sweeping shift in attitudes with regards to same-sex marriage in the United States. This is also a much-needed justification for other state legislatures that have already taken the initiative to legalise same-sex marriage without the public vote, a move that has garnered heavy criticism from opponents as non-representative legislation.

Given that this is the first time that same-sex marriage has been on state ballots since Obama endorsed it in May 2012, the relationship between the two cannot be purely coincidental. Rather the question posed should be: which came first, Obama's endorsement or an increased acceptance for marriage equality? Did the president endorse same-sex marriage because it was gaining acceptance or because it was the right, albeit unpopular, thing to do?

The answers to these questions are complex and not yet fully known. However, we can draw distinct connections between current events surrounding same-sex marriage, LGBTQ equality more generally, and changing public opinion. The shifting perception of equality and the president's public support for same-sex marriage are arguably co-dependent. The president will always, to a certain degree, be a reflection of some existing public opinion in the country, and vice versa.

Obama could not, and would not, have endorsed same-sex marriage without already increasing public support for gay rights and marriage equality. We've seen this support in the form of endorsements and activism from equal rights organisations, politicians, public figures and some international leaders for decades. These various actors have been a reflection of a national and international dialogue that is increasingly human rights-conscious on multiple fronts, not just LGBTQ rights.

While Obama's initial election can be attributed to a multitude of non-related flukes (anyone but George W Bush, hope and change), his re-election would not have happened without a progressively tolerant public that is well aware of the president's stance on marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, and who wants representatives who are a reflection of those evolving beliefs and standards.

That said, Obama set a precedent with his same-sex marriage endorsement that no other public figure in the world could. With an endorsement from the president of the US, one of the world's greatest powers, same-sex marriage finally stood a chance to begin to find its footing in mainstream politics and law. While Obama's popularity had been a source of debate during his first term, the latest election has proven that the president is still in a position to influence a sizeable percentage of voters.

This election season, Obama's endorsement of marriage equality likely had the largest effect on voters that have been undecided about same-sex marriage, but admire and respect the president's views enough to be swayed by them. This can be seen in the case of Maine, in which the majority of voters shot down a Bill legalising same-sex marriage as recently as 2009 only to vote in favour of it on Tuesday.

Before election night, the commentary surrounding the impact of Obama's same-sex marriage endorsement was purely theoretical. Some have said that it was too much too soon, some thought it wasn't enough. What is evident is that his endorsement has made a significant and lasting impact on progress with regards to same-sex marriage in the United States, even if it was just a few simple steps in that direction.  

So what now? It will be interesting to see to what extent Obama's influence is carried within and beyond state borders, and into the broader international community. His re-election and the legalisation of same-sex marriage through referendum in three states is an affirmation that the United States public is as tolerant and progressive as it has ever been. The US has the leadership, and thus the great potential, to entrench the growing universal shift towards tolerating and protecting alternative sexual relationships. The question now is whether or not the US will take on that role, and with what vigour.

Caroline is a United States citizen and an intern at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies