By CONNIE CASS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — He gave no speech, issued no call to action. He spoke of changing alongside the nation's people, not of leading them into uncharted territory. He made sure to say what so many so passionately believe — that states should decide such issues on their own.
The first black president becoming the first president to speak out for a minority denied the right to marry is undoubtedly a powerful political moment. But a significant cultural milestone? A nation full of straight people at ease among openly gay co-workers, relatives and sitcom characters may already have passed Barack Obama by.
It is a truism, but it's worth saying nonetheless: Politics lags behind culture, especially Hollywood's version of it.
The president himself describes his change of position on gay marriage as several steps behind his 10- and 13-year-old daughters and the college students he frequently encounters — even young Republicans — who already see treating gays equally as no big deal.
And this is the societal backdrop against which he made his pronouncement Wednesday:
After the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was lifted last year, gay and lesbian soldiers who came out to their comrades in arms reported being met with shrugs. High school students hang out in gay-straight alliance groups. Celebrities line up to condemn bullying of gay youth. On TV shows like "Modern Family," ''Grey's Anatomy" and "Smash," gay characters get married, adopt children and kiss on screen, to little public outcry; within the story lines, they're just part of the cast.
Vice President Joe Biden, whose weekend declaration that he's "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage nudged Obama to take on the politically hazardous subject, credited the 1998-2006 TV sitcom "Will & Grace" with doing "more to educate the public than almost anything anybody's done so far." The show featured two main characters — a heterosexual female and a gay male — trying to understand their friends, their challenges and their lives.
"People fear that which is different," Biden said. "Now they're beginning to understand."
Such programming, of course, is primarily aimed at the under-30 viewers whom advertisers covet, not the older folks who are more likely to be appalled by scenes of gay romance.
"The younger age group believes this is fine," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric. "The problem is, it's the older age group that votes."
Obama's pronouncement, in an ABC interview, doesn't mean same-sex marriage will suddenly become widespread across the country. Indeed, Obama spoke up the day after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman. It became the 30th state to approve such a measure. Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said that record disproves the theory "that same-sex marriage is inevitable."
Yet six states and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Nine allow civil unions or have domestic partnership laws that provide equivalent rights. Maine, Maryland and Washington state lawmakers have moved toward gay marriage, with the final outcomes possibly to be decided by voters in November.
Sarah Warbelow, who's spent four years pushing the marriage issue state by state for the Human Rights Campaign, said the president's show of support "is bound to change hearts and minds." ''We're absolutely thrilled," she said.
Taken as a whole, the nation is almost evenly divided on the question of same-sex marriage, with conservatives and Republicans strongly opposed and Democrats and independents mostly in favor. But polls show support's been on an upward trend for years, and the opposition clusters among Americans over age 55.
Six out of 10 of those who are younger than that favor gay marriage, according to an AP-National Constitution Center poll.
And acceptance of gays is wider than acceptance of gay marriage. The numbers go up, for example, when you include those who are OK with granting legal status to gay couples so long as it's called something like a civil union instead of a marriage — the position Obama had previously taken, as did President George W. Bush.