Philadelphia—On this exact day in 2008, I sat on the floor of Invesco Stadium listening raptly to Senator Barack Obama’s acceptance speech along with 84,000 similarly mesmerized people. Towards the end, he made history yet again with this one sentence: “I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.”
As the entire stadium burst into applause, and as those not already standing rose to give Obama a standing ovation, I turned to one of my fellow reporters and said, “Holy shit! Did that just happen!?” Only four years ago, same-sex marriage had been hastily and inaccurately blamed for costing John Kerry the presidency, and walking around Denver, often with LGBT delegates or reporters, I still felt like a skunk at the garden party. So Obama’s mere mention of gays and lesbians—as brothers and sisters, in his most important speech to date—seemed brave; it felt like affirmation.
What a difference eight years make! If any Democrat said those words on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center today, he or she would be booed off stage—for suggesting that opposition to same-sex marriage is a position one could reach in good faith instead of by rank bigotry, for articulating such a stingy version of LGBT equality, and indeed for leaving the B and the T out of the picture altogether.
In fact, we now know that Obama himself thought those words were garbage even as he said them. As David Axelrod has revealed in his memoir, Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage was a contrived bit of fakery—as was his entire subsequent “evolution” on the issue. “I’m just not very good at bullshitting,” Obama told Axelrod after a campaign event where his public position came up. As many suspected all along (including myself), in private, the Obama of 2008 was the same as the Obama of 1996, who supported legalizing same-sex marriage when he ran for the Illinois state Senate. But winning the White House meant courting moderates and Christians, as well as turning out the black church—and that meant, so Obama and Axelrod thought, bullshitting—it meant posturing around LGBT rights in order to appeal to what one believed was the widest possible audience. It was a political calculation.
I dredge all this up now because walking around Philadelphia is a wholly different experience from Denver. There are rainbow flags, pins, T-shirts, stickers, and wristbands everywhere. The appearance of a trans convention goer is a completely unremarkable occurrence. At an Emily’s List event, I fell into a conversation about the meteoric changes in LGBT rights with a group of Southern, older, women delegates. One of them pinched my cheek and asked me if I was married yet, with a gleam in her eye that made me think, “Oh my God, this lady Democrat is going to put me in her purse and take me home as a souvenir!” LGBT folks—we’re the unofficial mascots of the 2016 DNC.