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On gay marriage, Obama is on the right side of history

President Obama’s support for gay marriage marks the end of an evolution for the president and, to an extent, for the country. Obama based his change of heart on simple fairness — “when I think of members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think of soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors. . .” — and that is the crux of the matter: Respect for the principle of equal treatment, and an acknowledgment that the human yearning for love can lead to an equally human yearning for family.

Obama’s comments clarified mixed signals by his administration, and quelled growing unhappiness among gay advocates. But they came at some political risk, on the day after voters in the swing state of North Carolina approved a sweeping anti-gay marriage referendum by a 61-39 margin.

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Still, North Carolina’s vote masks the fact that, over a relatively short period of time, gay marriage has gained a solid foothold in this country. Six states plus the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages. Massachusetts was the first, in 2004, by court order. Later, New Hampshire became the first state where gay marriage took effect by order of the legislature and governor. New York eventually followed suit, and other states surely will.

Nationally, a plurality of voters supports gay marriage, 47-43, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Younger voters are leading the way, with 61 percent of those under age 32 in favor, by Pew’s count. So while the issue remains a matter of contention, the die is cast. Gay marriage will, in time, be broadly accepted in this country.

The fearful argument put forward a decade ago — that allowing same-sex marriage would undermine the unions of men and women — is harder to sustain in light of actual experience. Gay couples have been marrying and divorcing in much the same manner as men and women, and no one outside of the couples, their families, and friends has been much affected. Even older people who were opposed to gay marriage have tended to soften their views after watching it take effect.

The growing acceptance of gay marriage is a benchmark in the country’s long march toward equal rights, whether by race, gender, or sexual orientation. It owes much of its force to the civil rights movement, which informs the national sense of right and wrong today. Obama, whose idols are Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., knows this in his bones.

His decision to support gay marriage may cost him some support, but will close a gap in his political persona. Whether ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, or refusing to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal marital benefits to legally married gay couples, Obama has stood up for gay Americans more forcefully than any of his predecessors. Yet he clung to a position at odds with his actions.

Not any more. His commitment to gay marriage puts him on the right side of history, and demonstrates his willingness to embrace the future. It’s never too late to do the right thing, and Obama’s conversion should be a source of pride to himself and for the millions of backers of gay marriage who urged him on.

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