Year after Obama 'evolved' on marriage, gains for gay rights

11:07 AM, May 9, 2013   |    comments
Marcos German-Dominguez, right, waves a flag at a rally on March 26 in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The high court will hear arguments on California's Proposition 8, the controversial ballot initiative that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
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(CBS NEWS) -- In the past year, the push for gay rights has made remarkable progress: Dozens of elected officials have expressed support for same-sex marriage, a handful of states have passed marriage equality laws and public support for the issue continues to grow.

The push for gay rights has been decades in the making, but the campaign for marriage equality gained true momentum one year ago, when President Obama made history by becoming the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage.

"We need people in our country who have the power to change policies and improve people's lives like President Obama... not only for marriage equality but other equality issues," Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, co-director of the gay rights organization GetEQUAL, told CBSNews.com. "We also we need to be able to change the culture -- laws can change, but there's the everlasting work of changing hearts and minds."

Activists make the case the president helped on both fronts.

When it comes to policy, "I think that the president has both talked the talk and walked the walk," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, communications director for the gay rights organization the Human Rights Campaign. "He has made LGBT issues a priority and we're quite pleased with what he's been able to deliver."

Mr. Obama signed into law the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, and he's supported regulatory changes such as granting hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples.

In the Supreme Court this year, the Obama administration refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The administration also argued in the Supreme Court against California's same-sex marriage ban.

After Mr. Obama helped prove that backing same-sex marriage wasn't a toxic position, it also gained momentum at the state level: In November 2012, Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first states to pass ballot initiatives approving of same-sex marriage. In the last two weeks, Rhode Island and Delaware became the 10th and 11th states to legalize same-sex marriage, and more are expected to soon follow their lead.

The fight for gay rights, however, doesn't end with marriage equality. Activists are pushing for the president and members of Congress to support two amendments to the Senate's immigration bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which would give same-sex couples similar immigration rights as opposite-sex couples. So far the White House, hesitant to disrupt the congressional debate over the immigration bill, hasn't taken a position on any amendments.

Additionally, gay rights activists are pushing for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would federally prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, 29 states lack sexual orientation non-discrimination laws, and 34 states lack gender identity non-discrimination laws.

"We're definitely grateful he came out for marriage and for federal equality," Sousa-Rodriguez said, "but we're still asking him to use his power and political clout" to push for those issues.

While the political debate evolves, so does public opinion. Since Mr. Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, public sentiment has notably reversed: In May 2012, just after his announcement, a slight majority of Americans said in a CBS News poll that same-sex marriage should not be legal. But in the most recent CBS News polling on the issue, conducted in March 2013, 53 percent of Americans said it should be legal, and just 39 percent said it shouldn't.

"The way the president explained his evolution on marriage equality is something a number of other Americans could identify with," Cole-Schwartz said. "The way he articulated that gave people the space to go on that same journey themselves."

When he announced his support, Mr. Obama said, "I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage -- at a certain point I've just concluded that 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."

Before making that announcement, the president had said his position was "evolving."

CBS News' polling suggests that many Americans have found their own opinions "evolving."

In the March 2013 poll, among those who said same-sex marriage should be legal, a third said they previously didn't believe that. When asked why they changed their minds, as many as 17 percent said they are simply more tolerant now. Another 17 percent said they are more educated, 20 percent attributed it to knowing someone who is gay or lesbian and 12 percent said it is the "modern way" of thinking about the issue.

Mr. Obama's change of heart -- and the language with which he chose to explain it -- also proved to be the model for several other politicians. Other leaders said they were "evolving" on the issue, with more than a dozen senators coming out in support of same-sex marriage this year. There are now 54 senators and 185 members of the House of Representatives who support same-sex marriage, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Most of the support has come from the president's party, which is taking full advantage of the fast-growing support for gay rights. Jason Collins, the NBA player who recently came out of the closet, will be headlining a Democratic fundraiser with First Lady Michelle Obama later this month. Still, Sousa-Rodriguez said he's optimistic about the "traction" he sees among Republicans. 

"They're on the wrong side of history, and that's very clear now," he said.


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