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Obama's gay marriage support elicits no surprise here; Both sides on issue expected decision

President Obama's support for gay marriage may have been historic, but in Western New York it came as little surprise to those on both sides of the debate.

The region has long had a chance to wrestle over the polarizing issue of gay marriage, which was legalized by New York State a year ago and has been the norm in Canada for even longer.

Whether you're for or against it, to have the first sitting president declare his backing for gay marriage was the next step after years of changing attitudes. While some raised eyebrows at Obama's timing, they were far less surprised at his position.

"We knew he was supportive of gay marriage; that has never been in doubt," said Jonathan Katz, a career community gay activist and University at Buffalo art professor. "What was in doubt was if he would make the political calculus to admit that."

Obama's position may actually have more impact nationally than locally, where political wrangling and personal soul-searching was at its height last year when New York became the sixth state to legalize gay marriage.

"I guess personally it's not a surprise to me," said the Rev. William Gillison, who lobbied heavily against gay marriage in New York. "The only thing he did was actually just come out and say it, because all of his actions have been leaning toward that end in the first place."

Polls on gay marriage over the past two years show a distinct trend: Opposition is falling across age groups, races, genders and political affiliations. The majority of older Americans, Republicans and African-Americans still oppose same-sex marriage, but the percentage has continued to decline.

Overall, surveys show American support of gay marriage ranging from 47 percent to 52 percent, with the most recent Gallup poll released this month showing that for the second year in a row, 50 percent or more of the American public supports same-sex unions.

Within the black community, the opposition to same-sex marriage has fallen precipitously, according to an April poll by the Pew Research Center. From 2008 to 2012, the percentage of African-Americans opposing same-sex marriage has fallen from 63 percent to 49 percent, while the percentage in favor has climbed from 26 percent in 2008 to 39 percent this year.

For Monica Asis and Ellen Fischer, Obama's announcement was an early wedding gift as they cruised down the highway Thursday afternoon on their way to Niagara Falls. Saturday, they are tying the knot in the presence of a handful of relatives, including their two young sons.

"It is very affirming to have President Obama publicly affirm what we suspected he believed on a personal level," said Fischer, 40. "I thought it was inevitable that it would come to this, but I was a little surprised at the timing."

Those who define marriage as the union between a man and a women say their position isn't changing, regardless of the president's stance or anyone else's.

"I dare say I do not feel it will ever change, because it's based on what I believe Scriptures say, and I don't see the Scripture changing," said Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church.

Gillison said he expects the issue will come up in his congregation. He thinks the president's announcement will bolster his popularity in some circles, but he believes others will wrestle with whether to support him.

"Some of us are concerned about the issues," Gillison said. " Some of us are concerned about him being a black president. Some are concerned about the political party."

Jim Rolls, chairman of the Pride Center of Western New York and a lawyer who handles gay legal issues, said the fact that Obama personalized his position as the father of young children was smart and may make a bigger difference in the black community.

"I think the fact that he's black sends a big message to the black community that they don't have anything to worry about," he said.

Tim Moran, editor of Outcome, Buffalo's gay newspaper, agreed.

He said same-sex marriage becomes more of a non-issue each year, as the older generation passes on and more people get to know family members, friends and neighbors who are gay and affected by issues, like marriage equality, hate crimes and anti-discrimination laws.

"It's time for everyone to grow up a little bit," he said, "because it's just reality."

His words are at odds with what some consider God's natural law.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec maintained the Catholic Church's long-standing position that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, "something we do not believe that the state, or even the Church, can change.

"The president's decision to endorse same-sex marriage is not surprising, but nevertheless, it is disconcerting, as he joins those in this country who wish to redefine marriage," the bishop said in a statement.

"Despite the president's pronouncement," he added, "we will not waver in our beliefs."

Those in the gay community contend that cultural acceptance of same-sex marriage will continue to grow, based on their own experience.

Rolls, who has two daughters and grandchildren from his first marriage, said he has been with his current partner for 29 years and waited 25 years to marry him in Canada in 2008.

"I was married for years and years and years, and there were rights I always took for granted because I was married," he said, "and then I ended up in a gay relationship, and all of a sudden the rights I had because I was 'legally' married were different than the rights I had because I was with a man."

Now, he said, his grandchildren don't blink an eye at having gay grandfathers.

Fischer added, "I think there is an inevitable shift to marriage equality. Even the younger people who are conservative are perhaps less concerned about punishing people for who they love than the older folks."

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