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On a sunny Saturday last month, I crashed a fancy brunch on New York's Fire Island at the swank beachside home of Daniel Cochran and Greg Sutphin, a wealthy gay couple. They served lovely Bloody Marys and a giant spread of eggs and meats and assorted asparagus dishes prepared by a white-coated chef. The brunch was the 31st to be held in Fire Island's Pines community to raise money for Lambda Legal, the gay movement's litigation arm. At last year's brunch, cheers went up virtually every time Barack Obama's name was uttered. This time, when Lambda executive director Kevin Cathcart began to review the President's record on gay issues, he was greeted with steely silence.
That silence — because it came from some of the most generous gay political donors in the country — is key to understanding the confusing position the Obama Administration took this week on whether gays and lesbians should enjoy equal marriage rights.
Try to thread this needle: The President has stated his opposition to marriage equality many times. In fact, during his campaign, he pandered to African-American audiences — a group that was already for him — by inviting a black singer named Donnie McClurkin to perform at his events; McClurkin believes one's sexuality can be changed by praying to Jesus Christ. And yet Obama has also said he opposes Public Law No. 104-199, 110 Statute 2419, a 1996 bill (signed by President Clinton) that anti-gay forces called the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. Obama has said several times that he would like that law overturned.
And yet — sorry, the contradictions keep coming — once Obama was elected, and once a gay couple in California had sued to overturn DOMA, his Administration not only defended the law, but defended it in a legal argument so reactionary that it would embarrass Dick Cheney (who, incidentally, is to the left of Obama on marriage). In that argument — here's a PDF courtesy of Georgetown professor Nan Hunter — Obama's lawyers noted that "courts have widely held that certain marriages performed elsewhere need not be given effect, because they conflicted with ... public policy." The examples the Justice Department offered: "marriage of uncle to niece," "marriage of 16-year-old," "marriage of first cousins."
The president said he backed the rights of gay couples, saying they should have the "same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country." He said he has urged Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and to pass the Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act.
Although Barack Obama has said that he supports civil unions, he is against gay marriage. In an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune, Obama said, "I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman."
Barack Obama did vote against a Federal Marriage Amendment and opposed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
He said he would support civil unions between gay and lesbian couples, as well as letting individual states determine if marriage between gay and lesbian couples should be legalized.