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Obama's stand a symbolic watershed in nation's approach to gay rights

Sitting at work in Kansas City, 20-year-old Caleb-Michael Files heard the news that his country’s president had endorsed same sex marriage.

“My heart started racing,” said Files, who’s gay. “It was like, oh, this is really happening.”

President Barack Obama’s declaration on Wednesday that he no longer was ambivalent about the hot-button issue carries no force of law. It’s still illegal to get married in Missouri, Kansas and most other states. And if two men traveled to Iowa to get hitched or two women went to Washington, D.C., to tie the knot, neither the federal government nor their home state would recognize their marriage.

Not even their divorce.

In fact, just a day before Obama’s announcement, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly joined 30 other states in taking largely emphatic positions that every marriage needs two genders.

Still, the president’s position — a significant move away from his previous claims that he didn’t support same sex marriage — marked at least a symbolic watershed in the nation’s uneasy approach to gay rights.

When Files was a high school freshman in Knob Noster, Mo., in 2006, he was the only openly gay guy in school. By the time he graduated, Files said, eight of the 80 students in his graduating class were out of the closet.

In many ways, that reflects the country’s changing attitudes about gay rights.

To be sure, America’s outlook on same sex marriage remains a shape-shifting enigma. Within the last year, Pew Research Center polls show the country moving from being marginally opposed to gay marriage, to marginally in favor of it.

Just a decade ago, nearly 60 percent of the country opposed same sex marriage and barely a third supported it. Even today, young people are far more supportive of same sex marriage than their parents and grandparents.

Or consider that later this month the Mid-America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce will debut in Kansas City, and Hallmark Cards Inc. will be a founding corporate partner. Hallmark executive Donald Hall Jr. — described by Jackson County’s Democratic Party chairman as the “straightest, whitest Republican in Kansas City” — will deliver the keynote speech to the group.

“This whole thing’s been evolving,” said Dan Nilsen, who leads the gay Chamber group and runs the Bishop-McCann live events company in Kansas City.

He points out that gay rights advocates still have daunting goals. States such as Missouri and Kansas don’t offer protection against job discrimination for sexual orientation, and this year the Missouri General Assembly explored a so-called don’t-say-gay bill aimed at keeping talk of gay and lesbian sexuality out of schools.

While a handful of state courts and legislatures OK’d same sex marriage, no statewide vote in the country has sided with the change. And if same sex couples who live in states that don’t allow same sex marriages travel to marry in states that do, they face complications if they later decide to divorce.

At the same time, large local employers increasingly pride themselves on being gay friendly. At Cerner Corp., Sprint Nextel Corp. and Hallmark, employees can include their same sex partners in health care plans.

It was within this national ambivalence that Obama came out for same sex marriage. That followed Vice President Joe Biden telling an interviewer on Sunday that he favored gay marriage.

However, the president’s support for same sex marriage drew a hard rebuke from the right. Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin painted it as a cynical “campaign finance decision” that would open the wallets of gay and lesbian couples for his re-election campaign.

The Fox News website first headlined the story “War on marriage,” and then switched to “Obama flip flops on gay marriage.”

Even the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, found fault in how late Obama arrived at his position. It was, the organization said, a “calculated announcement that comes too late to be of any use to the people of North Carolina, or any of the other states that have addressed this issue on his watch.”

And there were those who disagreed with the merits of his support for same sex marriage.

“The president has talked eloquently about the importance of fathers,” said Dale Schowengerdt, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund. The organization, which has an office in Leawood, has litigated against same sex marriage.

“Now he talks about the creation of fatherless and motherless families,” Schowengerdt added.

Jim Jenkins, a Leawood attorney and former vice president of Focus on the Family, said Obama’s position won’t sway people on either side of the issue, nor likely alter the outcome of the November election. (Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney opposes same sex marriage and civil unions.)

“If you like (Obama) and you agree on this, you’re going to say ‘whoopee,’ ” Jenkins said. “If you don’t like him, you’re going to say ‘phooey.’ I think it defeats the definition of marriage. It has been, and is, a union between a man and a woman.”

State Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat, married another woman in Iowa City, Iowa, in 2009. She found Obama’s shift “historic fantastic.”

“I’m not upset it took so long,” she said. “If I were an openly gay elected person on the coast, I might be more cynical. But I live in a state where I couldn’t even get a courtesy resolution passed for Gay Pride Week or a gay men’s chorus.”

Obama is catching up with fast-moving public opinion, noted Sarah Gillooly, a women’s health advocate in Kansas City. She’s been with the same partner for seven years, and decided not to marry until the state they live in would also allow her to divorce.

“I’m pleased to know the president is in the same place as most Americans,” Gillooly said.

John Long, editor and publisher of Camp magazine, which caters mostly to a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender audience, had feared Obama may have hurt his prospects for re-election.

But the fact that Obama took a stand in an election season makes it a more powerful statement, said gay rights activist Jim MacDonald.

“It’s more than just symbolism,” said MacDonald, who writes grants for a non-profit organization in Kansas City. “It reflects a political calculation. It’s a sign that we’ve come farther than we think we had.”