Less than 12 hours after North Carolina voters approved a same-sex marriage ban in their state, Connecticut state Sen. Beth Bye (D) told her wife that she had accepted the fact that President Obama was not going to support marriage equality until after the election.
“I’m going to cry when I say this to you,” Bye told TPM. “I mean, yesterday I felt like I was punched in the stomach.” Bye and her wife, Tracey Wilson, were the first gay couple to marry in the state of Connecticut. The North Carolina vote affected her more than she imagined, she said, and it made Obama’s announcement Wednesday afternoon that he supports same-sex marriage even sweeter. All day Wednesday, gay lawmakers and members of the governor’s administration in Connecticut, one of six states (along with the District of Columbia) that allow gay marriage, found one another and embraced in hugs. “It’s the last day of session, so we’re running up and down and trying to get bills passed,” Bye said. “But in the midst of this we’re finding each other.”
For the gay politicians and activists contacted by TPM, President Obama’s public support for their cause hits home in a wonderful way. “It’s funny ‘cause it’s not like anything passed,” Bye said. “It’s just the feeling that is so much more than I ever thought it would be.”
Others never thought the day would come at all.
“My reaction?” asks Sam Adams, the openly gay mayor of Portland, Ore. “It was something like, ‘Great frickin’ news!’” That’s “not very mayoral,” Adams admitted, “but heartfelt.” Adams said he never thought he would hear a sitting president endorse gay marriage. “Growing up in a small Oregon coastal town, in Newport, Ore., I never thought in my lifetime I would ever hear a president say that he supported equal marriage,” Adams said. “I’m 48, and that just was not something I ever expected to hear in my lifetime.” He received the news in a text message from his partner as he was leaving a City Council meeting.
“I’m gay. I’m almost 54 years old. I grew up in East Tennessee, where it was not really so easy to be gay, so I didn’t come out until I was in my 30s,” said Rick Jacobs, founder and president of the Courage Campaign and a longtime gay rights activist. “One of the reasons I worked so hard on full LGBT equality is because I don’t want kids growing up in East Tennessee or North Carolina or anywhere else in the country having no role models and thinking that they are less than the rest of their family or friends. And so when I heard the president today,” he said, “I literally teared up.”
“Who would have thought that this would happen so quickly?” said Virginia state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the first and only openly gay legislator in the Commonwealth. “I mean so quickly in terms of the marriage equality movement, I’m not saying it’s sooner for this president,” Ebbin said. “I think this president did this just in time not to be left behind by history.”
Many activists and politicians said they first heard the news from members of the media.
“I was doing a TV interview and this guy said, ‘Well they’re gonna release this any minute,’ and I said, ‘I haven’t heard about it,’” Ebbin said “And then I got a call from another reporter asking if I would be on their show tomorrow.”
Any texts? “Here, I just got one from somebody and she says: ‘yay’” Jacobs relayed, laughing. “So yeah, it’s starting to happen.”
Jonathan Mintz, commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, became one of the most prominent gay grooms in America when Mayor Michael Bloomberg personally officiated his marriage to another top aide last year in a public ceremony at Gracie Mansion. The event, which came shortly after New York’s legislature passed a landmark gay marriage law, was carried live on CNN and made headlines around the world.
“It’s hard to imagine a more fundamental tipping point than having the president step forward and say in a purposeful deliberate way that gay marriage is the right thing,” Mintz told TPM. “I think it sends a signal to everybody.”
Mintz and his husband had long been in a committed relationship — in a happy coincidence, Wednesday was their 15th anniversary — but he said that having a legally recognized marriage had already had a profound impact on their lives, especially those of their children.
“I think there is a seismic shift in the way my daughters see where they are in the world,” Mintz said. “I think that we have absolutely noticed in this last year that the kinds of questions that our daughters used to ask about our family and fairness have almost virtually disappeared.”
Obama notably mentioned in his ABC News interview that a factor in his decision was his daughters’ clear ease with friends who have gay parents.
“There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we’re talking about their friends and their parents and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently,” the president said. “It doesn’t make sense to them and frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”
Gay rights advocates on the other side of the aisle had a more measured take on the news.
“It is something that’s exciting. It’s obviously a good thing. This is obviously a step in the right direction,” said Christopher Barron, chief strategist for GOProud, which represents gay Republicans. Barron, who supports Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, sees Obama’s move as purely political. Whereas several Democrats called Obama’s announcement courageous, Barron says it’s anything but. “The calls for him to step up to the plate within his own party had gotten to the point where he couldn’t tamp them down anymore,” Barron said. “I think the president has been overtly political about this from the very beginning. I’m glad he finally got to the right place on this, I just think it’s unfortunate that it had to happen the way it did.”
Maureen Walsh, a Republican state representative in Washington, which legalized gay marriage earlier this year, became an internet sensation in February when she broke ranks with her Republican colleagues and made an impassioned speech in favor of a gay marriage bill in her state. “It is kind of an evolutionary process,” Walsh, who is straight and has a daughter who is gay, told TPM. “And I can relate to that because I recall being of the belief that it’s all semantics, why do you need the word marriage?” she said. “But then you really learn that it goes beyond the issue of semantics, right to the core of the issue.”
“The timing of this is interesting, obviously,” Walsh said. “But I would like to think that not all politicians’ lives are so choreographed, even though I’m probably a little naive in saying that.”
Bye said Obama’s change of heart meant more than he might ever realize.
“I just don’t think [Obama] could possibly imagine because, you know, he’s not [gay], he could possibly imagine what it feels like to us that he’s validating our marriages here,” Bye said.
Bye texted her sister Wednesday, who happens to be friends with Michelle Obama. “She never asks any favors of Michelle,” Bye said. “But I just texted her, ‘I know you’re probably never going to do this, but I just want you to tell your friend Michelle, tell her husband that he’ll never know what this means,’” she said. “You just feel like you want to find President Obama and say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
Benjy Sarlin contributed to this report.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.