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Barry, Obama & The Winding Road To Gay Marriage

When the history of this country's journey toward acceptance of same-sex marriage is written, much will be made of the startling swiftness with which one state after another embraced gay marriage in a matter of a few months in 2008 and 2009. A huge shift in popular attitudes toward homosexuality has happened in what history will eventually see as a blink of an eye.

But those same historians will find a dissonant note in this social revolution: What will they make of prominent leaders who rose to power as early advocates for gay rights, but then tempered their views or reversed course just as much of the country was heading the other way? What's behind these strange turns in the public attitudes of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and President Barack Obama?

Barry was first elected mayor in 1978 in good part because he won the support of Washington's growing and vocal gay community.

As then-city hall reporter Juan Williams wrote in The Post, "Gay Washington's political clout was certified in 1978 when gays contributed money and volunteer campaign staff to help Marion Barry win a narrow victory in the Democratic primary for mayor." In that first mayoral campaign, Barry was the only candidate openly supportive of gay rights.

In 1981, over the vocal objections of an influential group of black ministers, Barry signed a bill repealing criminal penalties for sodomy between consenting adults. The next year, the mayor was the keynote speaker at the annual Lambda Legal Defense and Educational Fund dinner, where he was honored for his work on gay civil rights, a cause Barry called "morally right."

Barry stood up to the ministers who were considered essential to electoral success in the District. As The Post's Milton Coleman reported in 1979, even when 40 ministers crowded into Barry's office to complain that the mayor's presence at gay-sponsored events was encouraging homosexuality, Barry insisted that gay rights was a human rights battle "similar to the civil rights that blacks fought for in the 1950s and 1960s."

But last week, Barry stood in Freedom Plaza leading anti-same-sex marriage protesters in a chant of "Say no to same-sex marriage in D.C.!" He continued: "You can't just talk about it, brothers. You got to work for it. You got to go across the street and walk the halls of the city Council. Confront all 12 of them, eye to eye--eye to eye! Morality against immorality.''

In 1996, Barack Obama responded to a Chicago newspaper's questions about the issue with these words: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."

Yet in his presidential campaign and on to today, the president has said that his religious faith leads him to oppose same-sex marriage (he favors legalizing civil unions for homosexual couples.)

Obama has characteristically reached out to the center, writing in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope" that "It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided...and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history."

Here are two otherwise dependably liberal politicians retreating from positions that seemed bold and even fringy when they took their initial stands years ago. Do Barry and Obama really have deep religious qualms about same-sex marriage, or are they merely seeking a middle path on an issue that cleaves the nation? How much of a factor in their decisions is race--especially after some gay rights advocates have blamed black and Hispanic voters for last fall's vote in California to create a constitutional bar against marriage for same-sex couples? (There's some evidence, from stats maven Nate Silver, that that interpretation of the vote is inaccurate; the divide appears to be more generational than ethnic or racial.)

In both Barry and Obama's cases, the primary motive for their positions appears to be political. Barry hasn't exactly become a softie in his latter years, and his claim to be "a moral politician" was catnip to the late-night TV comics.

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But Barry has positioned himself of late as the voice of pre-gentrification D.C.--the older black residents who feel as if their city has been taken over by newcomers, and especially by affluent young whites. Add the face-off between Barry and Mayor Adrian Fenty--whose deepest support comes from exactly those newcomers--and you have a fairly compelling political rationale for Barry's flip on gay rights.

The president's position is also rooted in electoral concerns--including the simple desire to be true to a campaign stance that helped Obama demonstrate that he was not the kneejerk liberal of his opponents' caricature. Just as Obama's selection of evangelical minister Rick Warren to deliver the prayer at his inauguration raised the hackles of many liberal and gay supporters, the president's stand on same-sex marriage sends a message of moderation to religious voters, even as he assures gays that he supports them on other aspects of their movement (civil unions, repealing the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.)

Despite the rhetoric of campaigns, change rarely begins in Washington; rather, it bubbles up from below. Politicians such as Obama and Barry won't hesitate to go where the people are when the time is right, but on difficult and divisive issues, they're much happier to hold back until the people have spoken. Call it timidity, call it craven, but it's how things work.


By Marc Fisher |  May 11, 2009; 8:25 AM ET  | Category:  Family , Gay marriage , Politics , The District
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I don't care who you marry. Enjoy the marriage penalty at tax time and making lawyers richer at your divorce.

Gays in Cali blamed Mormoms for the the contsitutional amendment banning gay amrriage when it was Obama's fault since the increased voter turnout amongst African Americans and latinos lead to more votes against gay marriage from these two groups. There aren't tha many mormoms in Cali to make that much of a difference.

The American family will not disappear tomorrow because gay couple can marry Jerry, Pat Rick and Barry O.

The only reason Barry Obama is church going Christian was for his political career like many.

Posted by: sheepherder | May 11, 2009 9:03 AM

Great collection of information; Appreciate the article.

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | May 11, 2009 10:24 AM

"We may have a civil war"(Mr. Barry, quoted in editorial)
Logically must have been mere hyperbole:
It's doubtful Mr. Barry really believed
It could come to that in D.C.

And editors may be chided a bit
For characterizing his remarks as "ugly"
Merely because he doesn’t believe that gays and lesbians
Qualify for being joined in the state of matrimony.

But it is a constitutionally protected right
To say whatever comes to mind
About the question of matrimony
Whether those involved are either homo- or heterosexually inclined.

And to Barry and his constituents it must seem a bit much
To be asked to accept recognition of nuptial communion
For folks who have the privilege of joining, for example,
In an officially blessed “civil union”.

That the notion of traditional marriage
Between folks outwardly undifferentiated gender-wise
Has less than universal appeal
Should to Post editors (and bloggers) come as no real surprise.

And if those who for any reason oppose
An official change in the definition of matrimony
Are moved to speak out against such change,
Why shouldn’t they? And defend tradition in marriage ceremony.

To characterize such behavior as “ugly”
Is a breach of civil discourse
On the part of editors of the Post, et al.,
That they should acknowledge forthrightly, perforce.

And it would seem that indulging in unconventional behavior
While wanting society to take of it a sanguine view
Is tantamount to wanting to have one’s cake
While endeavoring to dine on it, too.

Posted by: Gonzage1 | May 11, 2009 10:42 AM

Section 15-A. Marriage.

That only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions. This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.

The amendment ratified November 7, 2006, and effective January 1, 2007—Added a new section (15-A).

Posted by: AlbyVA | May 11, 2009 11:00 AM

Posted by: AlbyVA | May 11, 2009 11:00 AM

That help you sleep better at night? Knowin' all them durn homos can't obtain the same tax benefits that you do or make life-or-death medical decisions for their loved ones when they become incapacitated?

Posted by: ModestProposal | May 11, 2009 11:11 AM

People don't choose to be homophobic any more than people choose to be gay.

Two men having sex is scary and revolting.
I don't choose to feel this way so refrain from calling me discriminatory.

Posted by: eddiemacs | May 11, 2009 11:19 AM

Eddiemacs - how you feel is your own business. You are entitled to find people scary and revolting because they are gay, Jewish, black, uppity and female, non-American, or just because they like to dunk their chocolate-chip cookies in milk.

What you are NOT entitled to do is to deny them the right to live as they please. Part of living in a free country is accepting that your neighbor may freely choose to live in a manner of which you disapprove, may even choose to live openly as a person you find scary and revolting. As long as they do not harm you, THAT IS THEIR PREROGATIVE, and it is not your place to force your neighbor to conform to your wishes so that their lives, families, and choices do not upset you personally. You don't choose your feelings, but you DO choose your actions, and if you hurt your neighbor unfairly because you find them scary and revolting, your actions are discriminatory, cruel and un-American.

I find homophobes scary and revolting. But I don't try to take away your right to marry, raise kids, have jobs, worship in churches which adore a God who tortures gay people for being gay, etc.

Posted by: Catken1 | May 11, 2009 11:33 AM

Right now 43 states have laws prohibiting same-sex marriage. 29 0f those by constitutional amendment. It seems likely the two or three states of New York, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington will probably legalize same-sex marriage. OF Iowa, New Hampshire, and Maine, at least one and possibly two will reverse course by ballot initiative or constitutional amendment. At the end of the process, 80-90% of the states prohibit same-sex marriage. SCOTUS' composition makes it unlikely that DOMA will be found unconstitutional in the next two or three decades.

I envision the history of same sex marriage will be one or two paragraphs saying that after a few months of judicial activism and legislative activity in some smaller states, same-sex marriage crashed into the wall of public sentiment, ending with a dull, unceremonious thud.

Posted by: arosscpa | May 11, 2009 11:40 AM

AlbyVA - thanks for helping (as I assume you did) to pass an amendment which makes life less secure for some of your neighbors, many of them children. I'm sure we're all better off because some kids don't have secure, legal families - after all, they deserve to be punished for having selected gay parents, right? We all can sleep better at night, knowing we pay extra taxes and have less to show for them because some folks can't get health care for themselves and/or their kids through their partner's employer, and thus are more likely to be on Medicaid and/or to get expensive care for emergencies in place of cheap preventive care. Our family values are more secure, since we prevent some people from saying goodbye to their partner of decades on their deathbeds, and allow them to risk losing their houses, their life savings, and even their kids if their partner dies suddenly. (Kids who have lost a parent are so much better off being raised by strangers than the remaining parent, after all.)

And those of us in heterosexual marriages are so much more secure now that our government has insulted and denigrated the institution. How could we have thought that our marriages had intrinsic and lasting value, instead of being so weak that they could be threatened by the mere existence of an alternative that, by definition, doesn't even APPEAL to most of us? How could we have thought that the definition of marriage was more about love and companionship than genital balance? After all, God knows we can't choose the right marriage for ourselves without government telling us what to do. We Virginians are stupid that way.

Posted by: Catken1 | May 11, 2009 11:47 AM

Arosscpa - what you're missing is the generational change. The next generation, the one that will be making laws, sitting on the Supreme Court, and altering Constitutions in the future, doesn't really find gay marriage to be a threat or a problem.

Just because the people in charge now aren't likely to reverse course immediately doesn't mean that the course won't change. After all, most Americans once thought that slavery was an inevitable part of life, that interracial marriage was just sick and wrong, that women were naturally incapable of attending college or voting without overheating their wombs or whatever, etc. These were accepted as general facts of life, inevitable, inalterable.

Public sentiment has been wrong before, and has been changed before, quite dramatically. It is wrong on gay marriage now, and will change and is changing on that issue, inevitably. Hiding your face in the sand won't help.

Posted by: Catken1 | May 11, 2009 11:53 AM

To AlbyVA,

Yes, The Commonwealth of Virginia does set examples.

Section 20-57 of the Virginia Code provides:

"Marriages void without decree. All marriages between a white person and a colored person shall be absolutely void without any decree of divorce or other legal process." Va. Code Ann. 20-57

Posted by: Dale8 | May 11, 2009 11:57 AM

Posted by: arosscpa | May 11, 2009 11:40 AM

People made similar statements about interracial marriage back in the '60s.

The thing of it is, it's public sentiment that's shifting, and in a shockingly rapid way. Your "wall" is looking more and more rickety with every week that passes.

Also, a court ruling to protect a minority from an overreaching and needlessly fearful majority is not "activism." It's judicial review, and I'll bet that you consider it "justice" when it rules in your favor. Checks and balances and whatnot. Legislators are politicians with a constituency to please lest they face defeat in the next election cycle, and that can be a dangerous thing for an unpopular subset of the population.

Posted by: ModestProposal | May 11, 2009 11:58 AM

So essentially, the gay men and lesbian women who marched for the rights of blacks to ride on the same bus are now having their rights run over by that same bus?

Posted by: cdg0606 | May 11, 2009 1:29 PM

Yeah! Those coloreds shouldn't be able to defile our white women...oh wait, that was the last marriage debate. I forgot that this one is so much 'ickier'. Clearly, public opinion and law never mars civil rights, and the general public is never rules by bigotry...

And eddiemacs, you can choose to not be a bigot. Is the idea 'scary and revolting' to you because you think about it late at night when you are alone....

Posted by: 3cats1 | May 11, 2009 2:19 PM

The only thing that changed Marion Barry was that in the old days he needed to win citywide and now he needs only to pander to the much more homogenous Ward 8 electorate.

It's also true that Barry's path back into politics after his drugs-and-sex scandal was through the black churches, which were especially receptive to his story of personal redemption. He has been repaying the favor ever since.

He may sound like an old fool, but he's still a sly fox.

Obama made the same calculus, in reverse. Where he once had only to appeal to a relatively liberal political base, to win national election he had to trim his views accordingly. There, however, the similarities end. Obama is not only a brilliant guy and an inspiring leader, he's also not a tax cheat and drug addict.

Posted by: Meridian1 | May 11, 2009 2:19 PM

Meridian1 is so right!

Posted by: johng1 | May 11, 2009 3:21 PM

Promoting unnatural acts under the guise of "marriage" is not right. Why can't gays and lesbians just be satisfied with being in a civil union relationship? That way they would be entitled to hospital visits and insurance benefits without being "married". This was not the original intent of marriage - between two men or two women. Call the union something else other than a marriage.

Posted by: shevalsheshe | May 11, 2009 3:25 PM

shevalsheshe, the original purpose of marriage was more of an ownership agreement that the wife was the property of the husband. Want to go back to that example?

I married my partner almost a year ago. Hope that doesn't frighten you.

Posted by: ArlingtonGay | May 11, 2009 3:41 PM

Freedom is freedom. Either we believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans, or we don't.

Those who don't should be ashamed, pure and simple. You can make up silly poems and place them in the Post comments all you want, it doesn't change the fundamentals.

If you say you love freedom, then why don't you want to share that freedom with all?

God help those who seek to deny that to everyone.

Posted by: DouginMountVernon | May 11, 2009 4:12 PM

What about polygamy? What's wrong with that? A truly progressive society would remove "morality" from the equation completely when it comes to the sorts of relationships the state should sanction. If a man wants four wives, or a woman wants four husbands, the state ought to sanction that as well, and provide all members of these relationships with same marital rights as anyone else, including the right to adopt children.

Posted by: sonny2 | May 11, 2009 4:14 PM

AlbyVA actually has the gall to post the most offensive stain on the historical record of that document known as the Virginia Bill of Rights, the predecessor to our own US Constitution and series of Amendments that are today known as the United States' Bill of Rights.

What an embarassment, again, that Virginia, who once was a brilliant beacon of leadership in this nation showing the way toward liberty, freedom, and justice, now attempts to show the way backward.

Did Virginia learn nothing from the destructive "Massive Resistance" and the denigration of its citizens prior to that via its embarassing lack of civil rights for its African-American citizens?

Now, in 2006, Virginia stains its historical document known around the world as one of the first ever constitutional guarantees of human liberty, equality, freedom, and justice for all, with an "amendment" that RESTRICTS rights.

When will this great state ever learn that she can return to her once great traditions?

Posted by: DouginMountVernon | May 11, 2009 4:19 PM

I think this is like if Christians decided to go after Catholics because they don't believe in the same things. Homosexuality may go against the beliefs of certain groups of people, but it isn't doing anything to hurt them or to keep them from believing whatever they want to believe.

If you think Jesus doesn't want your neighbor to be gay, then you must believe that being gay will wind you up in Hell. Isn't that enough?

It's like a white supremacist being upset about a bi-racial couple. Two people who make a decision to live together and to share their lives together, who go to work and pay taxes and vote, should have the same rights. It shouldn't matter if one is a man and one is a woman.

Posted by: erik91764 | May 11, 2009 4:29 PM

What about polygamy?



As long as we can work out the admittedly more complicated legal problems, polygamy should be legal also. I agree.

Posted by: Freestinker | May 11, 2009 4:45 PM

Funny I've been living in DC all my life and would have never thought that just the Gay's got Barry in Office. BS!!!!!!! I'm noticing that especially when it comes to the Washington Post and many other media formats the Gays have a strong voice! However, let's not get this debate totally TWISTED! The Gay Community may be large supporters of the Media, the Post and other forms of communication. However, you can not control the Hearts and Minds of the majority of Americans!

Your failing to understand the big picture on a lot of issues and your fights, rants and comments towards folks who disagree with you sounds like something off the pages of Osama Bin Laden's playbook! Gay Marriage is no more a violation of Civil Rights then folks opposing the issues Rights are being violated! What you are asking appears to be a lose-lose situation for America as a whole! But the Gay Community could care less about what the outcome of the Present war they've started against the Religious Community, Straight folks against Gay Marriage, and better you the young minds of America!

This is a very selfish course that the Gay Community has set in place. I truly use to believe what divides us makes us stronger, although this divide may very well steal Americans souls and dam them forever! Outside of living for today, we all will leave this earth one day and we all will have to atone for our misgivings! Remember some SINS may never be forgiven!

Posted by: CashNDC | May 11, 2009 5:10 PM

This is a damning indictment of Barry on this issue, but I'm not sure why Obama is singled out on this more than any other Democratic leader. Every would-be nominee in the Democratic pack took exactly the same position Obama did and has, because to do otherwise would make them unelectable. As you say, it is not exactly speaking truth to power, but it's not Obama-specific.

The really funny and damning clip you could show on that is Joe Biden's position, as presented in the SNL sketch of the vice-presidential debate. Remember faux-Biden's answer on gay marriage? They got laughs simply by reciting the Democratic ticket's actual policy position on this topic.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | May 11, 2009 5:15 PM

It's only a matter of time before the bigots die out and their children shrug their shoulders and wonder what was the big deal.

Those who think that the law should be based on bogus cultish notions should move to places like Saudi Arabia.

Posted by: rtaylor3 | May 11, 2009 5:23 PM

I truly use to believe what divides us makes us stronger, although this divide may very well steal Americans souls and dam them forever! Outside of living for today, we all will leave this earth one day and we all will have to atone for our misgivings! Remember some SINS may never be forgiven!

Posted by: CashNDC | May 11, 2009 5:10 PM

If it's a theocracy you want to live in, there are plenty out there that I'm sure would love to have you. You'll be able to twist logic and criminalize any of the multitudes of defunct transgressions described in Leviticus you please. The United States of America, however, is not that place, neighbor.

Posted by: ModestProposal | May 11, 2009 7:46 PM

ArlingtonGay, God made Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve. .....flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. This one shall be called womand (Genesis).

Posted by: shevalsheshe | May 11, 2009 7:58 PM

Damn Christians need to remember that Jews and us Catholics wrote the bible not God. Jesus was first a Jew and then a Roman Catholic. He was never a Christian.

And bubba unless you are reading the bible in its original language much is lost in the translation in both the New and Old testaments. The differences from when the bible was first translated into Latin is astounding and some of its original meaning was lost in translation and this has continued for last 1900+ years.

Dude the Pope rules and its a shame men allowed women to change things so they weren't property any longer and got the vote. It was the right thing to do but stupid moves on our part.

Posted by: sheepherder | May 11, 2009 8:48 PM

ArlingtonGay, God made Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve. .....flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. This one shall be called womand (Genesis).

Posted by: shevalsheshe | May 11, 2009 7:58 PM

That would be all sorts of super if you didn't live someplace where people are free to (and do) think otherwise. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to impose your religious views on your neighbors any more than they are allowed to impose theirs on you.

Posted by: ModestProposal | May 11, 2009 9:30 PM

shevalsheshe - Just as a note, you do not have the right to force others to conform their personal lives to your religious text.

And CashNDC - are you truly saying that it's selfish and divisive for some people to want to live by their religious beliefs rather than yours? It's an infringement on your rights that you can't tell someone else who to marry? Gay people are declaring "war on the religious community" because they do not want some religions to have the legal right to force their dogma on non-believers? It's "Osama bin Laden" style tactics to speak out when your marriage, family and children, or those of your friends are attacked, instead of quietly submitting to someone else's belief system? We're terrorizing you by forcing you to allow others to make personal choices concerning their own marriages and families that you disagree with? No one wants to control the hearts and minds of the majority of Americans - we just want the majority to stop trying to control the hearts, minds, and families of gay folks.

I just love it when Christians cry persecution because their sacred right to persecute others has been taken away from them.

Posted by: Catken1 | May 12, 2009 11:13 AM

I think many people who denounce gay marriage on a religious basis forget that one of the major tenets in founding this nation was to ensure religious freedom for a religious minority that was prosecuted in the Old World. The reason that we have the principle of religious freedom is to ensure that those who follow the more dominant faiths do not dictate how those who believe in less mainsteam faiths practice their faiths. Hence, it is completely contrary to the intent of the founders of our nation that those in the religious majority would be able to make faith-based dictates against others. I think that the Supreme Court recognizes this and that is why constructionist and non-activist judges should always rule in favor of the minority that wants equality rather than religious persecution. It is only a matter of time before DOMA is overruled as being religious persecution.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | May 12, 2009 2:53 PM

The state has no business determining the right to marry or not to marry and therefore it was illegal, by virtue of seperation of church and state, when the state of California legislature tried to redefine a centuries old institution when it made gay marriage a legal entity last year. Proposition 8 overturned that and restored the seperation of church and state to California. Marriage, a religous institution, is to be determined in the private sector. If a sect or denomination of any religion wants to allow gay marriage, go for it! The state cannot legally prevent that. The state may legally recognize civil unions only-whether same sex or opposite sex. Seperation of church and state cuts both ways.

Posted by: goongagoolunga | May 13, 2009 1:17 AM

It's interesting that although their hearts seem to be in the right place, both Sheepherder, who seems to be a Catholic, and Eric91764 differentiate between "Christians" and "Catholics." Although I am wondering if Sheepherder is not writing tongue-in-cheek since he claims that Jesus had been a Roman Catholic! (Roman maybe since Rome ruled; Catholic, not hardly.)

Goongaoolunga seems rather confused, but if s/he does want to insist that government no longer recognize marriages performed by priests, rabbi, ministers, imams, etc., that's fine by me. But I do not know of anyone in the gay community who is calling for the legalized rejection of opposite-sex marriage.

Posted by: ProbablyNot | May 13, 2009 10:23 AM

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