It was the marriage equality milestone that nobody thought could happen: On May 9, 2012, Barack Obama endorsed the freedom to marry, making him the first sitting president to acknowledge that same-sex couples were entitled to the same rights and protections under the law as anyone else. With just a few words, Obama fundamentally shifted the debate over marriage equality and hastened public acceptance of queer people around the country. This ultimately led to the legalization of marriage equality, making LGBT rights one of the cornerstones of the Obama legacy.
Though it wasn’t long ago, 2012 was a highly contentious time in the marriage equality movement. Public support had been slowly on the rise, hastened somewhat by the messy passage of Proposition 8 in California and resulting social turmoil. Over the preceding few years, numerous states had passed laws banning marriage equality, but a handful of lawsuits challenged those laws and seemed likely to bring about the freedom to marry within the next few years.
In his interview, Obama described a lengthy process of consideration before concluding, “For me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
That followed occasional earlier teases, with Obama describing his thought process as “evolving.” But it was a surprise that he chose that time to announce his support. It was just a few months before the election, and he was about to plunge into the heat of a lengthy campaign.
The statement might have been prompted by an election in North Carolina, in which voters passed yet another law banning marriage for same-sex couples. The results were close, and Obama’s interview occurred the very next day.
Or it might have been Joe Biden that hastened the announcement. In an off-the-cuff conversation just a few days earlier, Biden expressed the administration’s openness to endorsing the freedom to marry. That startled many observers, particularly within the White House, who feared that the move could cause division in the lead-up to the election.
Ultimately, Obama cited his own family as important influencers. “Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we’re talking about their friends and their parents and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”
That teed up the country for several Supreme Court rulings that would come within the next few years. In 2013, the Justices declined to weigh in Proposition 8, letting it fall due to lower court rulings. More significantly, the Supreme Court ruled against the federal Defense of Marriage Act, laying the groundwork for a ruling in 2015 that forced states to overturn their anti-marriage laws.
As it was, that ruling was shocking and transformative; a milestone in American history. But it didn’t cause quite as much tumult as it might have had Obama not endorsed the freedom to marry three years earlier. It’s impossible to overstate just how meaningful it was to have support from the leader of what was then thought of as the free world. Americans had three years to get used to their leadership siding with equality, so when the law changed to catch up, public opinion had already sprinted ahead.
To be sure, there are still isolated, marginalized pockets of people who still oppose the freedom to marry. But their numbers have dwindled significantly, thanks in part to the leadership of Barack Obama.