If anyone still clings to the belief that social change is impossible in this country they have to think again after President Obama’s announcement yesterday that he supports the right of gay and lesbian Americans to marry. Yes, support for gay marriage has been growing among young people, but the country remains deeply divided on the question, evidenced by the North Carolina vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that bans both civil unions and marriage. When I was Governor of Vermont in the 1980’s, neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions were on the table. I was applauded by the gay community for initiating an official state liaison with a gay organzation. I also spoke at Vermont’s first Gay Pride Day, and received some praise but intense criticism for showing up. After Civil Unions became law in Vermont, a half a dozen legislators lost their seats because of the “Yea” vote they cast. A storm of opposition followed, with “Take Back Vermont” signs springing up on the side of country roads. After Vermont passed a gay marriage act, over riding a Governor’ veto, there was almost no reaction. Within ten years, gay marriage had moved from being on the fringe to moving toward the center–at least in Vermont My state–once a Republican stronghold is now largely Democratic. We sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that the country is moving in the same direction. Not so. The 31 states that have passed laws and constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage prove the point. Many courageous citizens had spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage before it was popular—even in Vermont. But the voice of the President of the United States speaking publicly in favor of same-sex marriage changes the political landscape. He establishes a tone of respect and civility that this country desperately needs in these times of ugly and divisive rhetoric. Mere months before his re-election will be determined, he has taken the risk of alienating many voters who vehemently disagree with him, even while others will agree. The polls on the question are so close that it is difficult to predict the consequences. One thing is clear. It took guts to state his position and I applaud him for it. But he could not have “evolved” to supporting same-sex marriage without the vocal support of a growing number of Americans who stand with him. I for, one did not expect such an enormous change to occur within a period of less than 25 years. Change is not only possible in America; it happens within our lifetime.
Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and