The Impact of A President: A Personal Reflection on Equality

Four years ago, on election day 2008, I was a poll-captain for the No on 8 campaign in California. After working day and night trying to beat back California's attempt to ban marriage equality, election day was finally upon us, and my job was to lead my team of volunteers to speak to voters in the parking lot of the polling place about voting No on 8. The team of volunteers rotated throughout the day, in 2, 3 or 4 hour shifts. Some stayed even half a day. I was there all day. From the break of dawn before the polls opened till they closed.

As I was headed back to the local headquarters after that long day, my best friend pulled up a report on his iPhone with the breaking news that John McCain had just conceded the presidential election to then-Sen. Barack Obama. I was happy. But as we followed the returns on the radio on our ride back, another reality began to set it. Proposition 8 was leading. I held out hope against hope, and we got back to the HQ. John McCain was in the middle of his concession speech. On a laptop screen, Proposition 8 was still passing.

That night was the most bittersweet night of my political life. As a young President-Elect swept into office, winning my state of California by 20 points, those same voters also passed a state Constitutional amendment removing my civil right to a civil marriage. I cried that night. Not just from the despair of Proposition 8, but also from the immense feeling of pride and hope from Barack Obama's election. And I don't cry that easily.

I remember telling people following that election - people who thought that they should have stayed in California and helped defeat Prop 8 instead of going to a swing state for President Obama - that they have nothing to regret. I was heartbroken over the loss on Prop 8, but somehow I knew, and I told my friends, that the election of Barack Obama was the biggest positive development in the LGBT rights movement since Harvey Milk.

Why, you ask, even though in 2008, Obama ran as a candidate who believed that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Well, because he was the one candidate I saw that went to audiences not traditionally friendly to gay rights and talked about the need for supporting us. Because Barack Obama was the one candidate who did not see us as expendable chips. Barack Obama promised to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell, support our families, and always keep an open mind and continue to learn. He promised to be a fierce advocate for us, without batting an eye.

He has been. He repealed DADT. He ordered all hospitals accepting Medicare to treat our families the same way as anyone else's. And this year, on May 9 (on my birthday!), for the first time in United States history, a sitting American president said those words:
"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."
Another emotional avalanche. No tears this time, though. Just elation, jubilation, and pride. Pride in myself, pride in my country, pride in my President. Jumping up and down. The President had come through for us. He'd kept his promise to always listen, always embrace, and always be a fierce advocate. With those simple words, he turned the tide. He did. I don't know how many of you will truly understand this, but the power of the reality that for the first time ever, there sits a man in the highest office in this land who believes in our full civil rights is immense. This President stuck his neck out. For us. No, not just for us. For me. That's how I felt.

It made a big difference. With those words spoken by the President, the march of anti-marriage sweeps through the states stopped. Dead. Cold. Want evidence? On Tuesday, America elected its first openly gay Senator. Voters in Maryland, Washington, and Maine approved same-sex marriage, and voters in Minnesota turned back a Constitutional amendment seeking to restrict that right. They did this year what we couldn't do in 2008. And yes, the president is to be credited.
Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University, said there was no doubt that there has been a "sea change in terms of voters' attitudes" toward gay marriage. He credits that, in part, to President Obama's public support of the issue this year.

When California voters approved a measure in 2008 to outlaw gay marriage, 70 percent of black voters supported the ban, Murray said. In Maryland this week, only half of black voters opposed legalizing same-sex marriage.
Following the president's remarks, this country saw a sea change on attitudes. Not just by ethnic groups - who I will be the first to admit the No on 8 campaign did a horrible job of reaching - but among political identities. Among Democrats, the last four years saw a net 30-point swing in favor of equality. Among independents, the swing was 12 points, and even among Republicans, it was 8 points.

This is what leadership looks like. The President took a party that was roughly evenly split on this and made it overwhelmingly pro-equality. The President's leadership sent a message to my fellow Democrats: it was time to support our right to marry, no matter whom we choose to marry. No excuses. The President took a country that was largely against our right to marry and moved it to where a majority now support it.

The President didn't do it alone. I can imagine what the people on the ground in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland and Washington went through, what they did. Because I was there. I was there four years ago. We lost. They won. But I know what they did. No president would have been able to move the dial without what they did. They are my brothers and sisters, and I cannot tell you today how proud I am of them. And I will bet you anything that they are as proud of this president as I am.

This road we have traveled has not been easy. I did not always think of this president as an ally. He earned my support there, too. But as we make history on marriage equality this election, I have no doubt about the power of those simple words the president spoke on my birthday. If anyone anywhere had a doubt that a President - along with committed advocates - can change the course of history, Tuesday night was your answer. If anyone anywhere had any doubt that this President would change the course of history, Tuesday night was your answer.

Thank you, Mr. President for giving us the power of your words, your actions, and your fierce advocacy.