US & Canada

Same-sex marriage: Conservative and liberal views

Robin Roberts and President Obama

"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," President Barack Obama told ABCNews.

And then the Twitterverse blew up with everything from teary accolades (ABCNews: "Key Moment in Gay Rights Timeline") to bleary-eyed accusations - (FoxNews Nation: "Obama Flip Flops, Declares War on Marriage.")

Malia and Sasha Obama might, rightly, be shocked by all the fuss this is causing. Certainly, by the time they are of an age when their peers begin to marry, 15 or 20 years from now, this day will glow with that Instamatic glow through which we view many of the civil rights successes of the past.

You mean women had to ask their husband's permission to work? You mean interracial marriage was… illegal? You mean gay marriage was once… banned?

Millennials, and most Gen Y and X voters, have long told pollsters gay marriage makes sense to them - it's a story about rights, it's about liberty, it's really nobody's business but the couple involved. It's not just the secular kids - even evangelicals, when you look to the young, support the right to marry.

In fact, the inevitability of the right to gay marriage among American under-40s has meant that the Obama administration appeared to have lost its way on the issue. It has meant that "change", and the promise that America was not comprised of red states and blue states but the United States of America, was not universal. It has meant that exclusion was still acceptable.

A White House hedging on the rights accorded to gay couples - yes to civil unions, but not marriage, yes to certain rights but not others - gave cover to those who did not believe in the inevitability of equality. Those people could then look to the Oval Office and say, 'well, the president is still thinking about the issue...'

And that became a problem for the president, both morally and politically.

In some respects, given the necessity of the youth vote, this may seem like a politically easy shift. The long held canard that traditional or older black voters aren't in favour of gay marriage, or will vote against those who support it, has begun to fall away. Governors Deval Patrick and David Paterson both expressed support for gay marriage without losing support from their constituents - see also Cory Booker, the Newark uber-mayor.

Politicians in New York and Maryland have expressly begun to see a forceful stance on the issue as not only a net positive for their present - and future - campaigns, but a necessity.

Indeed, among many progressives, a feeble stance on gay marriage has become almost a political liability. Witness the quick hurrah! response from Nancy Pelosi and Mike Bloomberg to the president's statement.

But it is far easier to make a statement as a governor, a congresswoman, a mayor. The country needed the president to take a stand here. The country needed this statement to come from on high: a clear-headed recognition that these are people's lives, that rights can't be traded or put off for later. The pomp and circumstance of the White House is no gimmick. A major new direction has been announced for the country.

"Historic," in this moment is not a cliche.

"Voters and elected officials who might have wanted to step up and have been afraid, they will be less afraid do to do so now," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in a conversation.

Obama, she said, has cleared "political space for other elected officials who may have felt they could not be as clear" as they now can be. She added: "I predict that every person running for office this year will be asked this question."

That's because there is a weight to what the president spends his time on, a gravitas that no other office in this country can touch. It is why Lyndon Johnson's brave support was crucial in the civil rights movement.

And of course that comparison exposes the faultlines of today's statement. The president emphasised this was a personal position - and that states could still make their own decisions.

The Defense of Marriage Act still stands. DOMA still prohibits federally recognising same-sex marriages, and thus, grotesquely, makes the lives of gay men and lesbians financially, personally, and logistically, far more dolorous than the lives of their straight friends.

But asked how she felt upon hearing his statement, Ms Carey paused and then said: "When you push for something for so long and then you finally get it it's jubilant, but it's also a 'finally'. Finally you are with us. Finally you are leading on this issue."

Sarah Wildman is a visiting scholar at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

A contrasting viewpoint: Rod Dreher, senior editor of the American Conservative, argues that by portraying the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage as "irrational hatred", US liberals have created powerful social and psychological pressures that encourage Americans to shun it .