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Timothy Stewart-Winter: Putting Obama's questionnaire in context

[Timothy Stewart-Winter is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago, writing his dissertation on lesbian and gay politics in Chicago.]

In this issue of the Windy City Times, the world learns for the first time that almost thirteen years ago, during his first campaign for office, Barack Obama answered a questionnaire with the phrase, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages.” The response appeared in a questionnaire that his campaign faxed to the office of Outlines—a local LGBT newspaper that purchased and merged with Windy City Times in 2000—on Feb. 15, 1996. Later that year, in its voter guide for the general election, Outlines summarized Obama's positions: “Supports gay rights, same-sex marriage; increased AIDS funding, abortion rights, affirmative action.”
Publisher and Executive Editor Tracy Baim retrieved the form from her archives while working on the Chicago Gay History Project. Her release of the document occurs at a unique time. On Jan. 20, for only the third time since the Stonewall riots, a new Democratic president will be sworn in. Some LGBT activists, infuriated by the president-elect's decision to invite evangelical pastor Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration, argue that Obama must do better than the last two Democratic presidencies, which they believe have resulted in pro-gay judicial appointments but too little else. Jimmy Carter was the first to invite gay activists to a White House meeting ( which he did not attend ) ; Bill Clinton was the first to pursue gay voters during his presidential campaign. Yet Carter said little to nothing in the course of Anita Bryant's national anti-gay crusade, and the Clinton years left us with the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

To put Obama's stunning statement in context, it helps to know how things were going for him in mid-February 1996: he was in the middle of a messy standoff with the 13th District's incumbent state Senator, Alice Palmer. After promising not to run for reelection and publicly endorsing Obama, a civil rights lawyer who had never held office, Palmer changed her mind in December 1995 and tried to get back into the race. For several weeks, neither candidate backed down, while local political leaders sought a resolution. The conflict would end in a matter of days, when Obama supporters successfully challenged the validity of signatures collected by Palmer's campaign. But on the day the fax went to Outlines, Obama was an unlikely candidate, up against a progressive incumbent in a very progressive district, who needed all the help he could get.

Earlier, in January, Obama had filled out his first known questionnaire on LGBT issues, which his campaign faxed to IMPACT Illinois, which was then the state's LGBT political action committee. Instead of asking about marriage directly, IMPACT asked candidates if they would support a resolution stating that “marriage is a basic human right and an individual personal choice” and that the state “should not interfere” with same-sex couples' right to marry. Obama's response, which appears to bear similarities to his handwriting on other documents from the period that have been released, was “I would support such a resolution.” Other answers, expressing unfamiliarity with HIV laws and with two openly gay candidates for office, reflect Obama's inexperience.

The two questionnaires are an artifact, of course, of a very different moment in Obama's history, but also in the history of the same-sex marriage debate. Beginning in 1995, after the highest court in Obama's native Hawaii began seeking to force that state to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, legislators in statehouses nationwide stampeded to ban the practice preemptively. On Feb. 13, 1996, just two days before Obama submitted the questionnaire, Republican Peter Fitzgerald of Palatine had unveiled a “defense of marriage” bill in the Illinois State Senate. The bill was signed into law in May by Gov. Jim Edgar; soon, Bill Clinton would sign the federal DOMA, which remains on the books. Obama clearly stated his opposition to such laws.

Today, the president-elect says he does not support “legalizing same-sex marriages.” As late as his early 2004 interview with Baim in this publication, he added a qualification, saying, “I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue.” Since the 2004 election, same-sex marriage has become far more widely discussed, and more politically explosive, than in 1996. Meanwhile, with his every word under scrutiny, Obama phrases his policy positions meticulously. To his credit, Obama, whose parents' interracial marriage in 1961 would have been illegal in several states, has generally avoided the phrase “traditional marriage,” which has become popular among politicians who prefer not to mention the gay and lesbian people who are concretely helped or harmed by their decisions. On the other hand, the Warren debacle raises questions about his commitment to deliver for a constituency that overwhelmingly backed him against John McCain.

President Obama will be the first occupant of the Oval Office who has a real history with the LGBT community. Even Clinton, who famously embraced gay voters on the campaign trail in 1992, had never done so as governor of Arkansas. It will be a major change to have a president who has spent his entire 12-year political career in environments in which the LGBT community has been an organized constituency, and has sought LGBT endorsements in every campaign. What remains to be seen, though, is whether it is a change we can believe in.

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