Once upon a time, Barack Obama supported gay marriage. Yes, we said that right: marriage. Not this civil union shenanigans he’s trying to pass off.
While running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996 (just 12 years ago!), Obama told the gay newspaper Outlines he was committed to full marriage rights for gay men and women: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”
The Windy City Times, which bought Outlines in 2000, went through its archives with a comb to find Obama’s exact wording. And there it is, in black and white with rainbow trim, is Obama’s declaration. (Full article herein PDF.) So, what changed between 1996 and 2008? Did Obama mean marriage for all people ... living in Illinois? Or was opting for the safer "civil unions" stance just a political gimmick to win the presidency?
Reports the WCT:
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.ChicagoGay-
History.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
More recently, as Obama has run for higher of-
fice, 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 fi-
nancial 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
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
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
The full 2004 interview can be found at: