In January, Obama gave his yearly State of the Union address, becoming the first president to ever say the words “bisexual” and “transgender” in a State of the Union. Obama stated that we need to, “condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.” More recently, in his dramatic speech from Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Obama suggested that Americans, “Ask [their] gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was 30 years ago.”
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Many people in favor of LGBT rights were very excited about these speeches. A TIME article about the SOTU cited Shannon Minister, advocate for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, saying, “it was thrilling to hear, for the first time in our nation’s history, the president of the United States acknowledge transgender people as an integral and valued part of our national community.” The African Human Rights Coalition, a human rights organization aimed at improving the lives of LGBT people in Africa and beyond, emphasized the fact that Obama didn’t simply use the acronym for bisexual and transgender but spelled out the terms. The organization stated, “to use words openly instead of mere acronyms is complementary to our community and indicative of a new-found openness for which we are much appreciative; indeed a huge step forward in the right direction.”
According to Justin Vaughn, who studies presidential politics at Boise State University, the fact the president is increasingly talking about LGBT rights reflects on how mainstream the issue has become. Vaughn cautioned however that in the current political climate there would likely be little change in Congress regarding LGBT rights, but that Obama’s statements in the State of the Union could spark a larger discussion. The president, by using his national stage to normalize LGBT terminology, placed the issue under a national spotlight in the hopes of advancing the debate as his second term in office wanes.
There are many people who remain optimistic about what Obama’s words might mean. Cindy Gross, a representative of Add the Words, an Idaho organization that fights for the inclusion of the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in Idaho’s Human Rights Act, agreed that Obama’s SOTU statement was very important. The address was very positive and forward-looking, Gross said, and significant in the fact that it showed Obama is keeping LGBT groups in mind as he crafts a road toward greater inclusivity. The president mentioning those groups could be the first step of a long journey to eliminate the fear many people hold of the LGBT community, she added. In January, scores of LGBT people and their allies testified at a historic legislative hearing on adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho’s Human Rights Act, and Add the Words protesters faced arrest at the statehouse.
The Selma speech was also widely reported. Michaele Ferguson, a professor in the political science department at the University of Colorado argued that the speech had a larger effect by connecting the events of Selma with other historical events such as Seneca Falls, the first women’s rights convention, as well as the Stonewall Riots which launched the gay rights movement in 1969. Ferguson elaborated in an email:
To my mind, that was important for a few reasons: (1) He mentioned historical events that most Americans do not even know about, which signaled to me that he was speaking to activists more than to the general populace. (2) His reference to Seneca Falls is important because it linked the struggle for gender equality to civil rights and gay rights in a peculiar way: not by referencing an event that occurred at the same time period as Selma or Stonewall (the 1960s), but an event that had happened more than a century earlier (in the 1840s). This implied to me, and other feminists, that he was representing women’s equality as more of an historical struggle in the past, not on ongoing struggle in the present. (3) By mentioning Stonewall, Obama got a lot of extra press attention for the history of gay liberation — I read and heard commentary explaining what Stonewall was. For example, this piece at Forbes.com.
Ferguson wrote that Obama’s speech brought “more attention to the historical struggle for gay liberation,” cautioning against considering the president’s words as “somehow less than ‘actualizing change.’”
While Obama’s speeches make a small stir, his track record on LGBT rights should not be overlooked. Obama has tackled issues such as:
- Housing rights in which his Department of Housing and Urban Development issued regulations recognizing LGBT families for federal housing programs and prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in accessing mortgage loans.
- The repeal of the military’s long-standing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a law forcing queer people in the military to stay closeted. By repealing this act, in Obama’s words: “gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans can serve openly in our Armed Forces and without fear of losing their jobs for who they are and who they love.”
- Repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, a policy put in place in 1996 to prohibit same sex marriages across the country. Obama pushed heavily for the removal of the act which was ultimately overturned by the United States Supreme Court.
Beyond policy and legislation, Obama has also made a record number of appointments of LGBT judges and ambassadors, according to the administration. With this in mind, Obama might be seen as a champion of LGBT rights. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, Obama has “proactively instituted many far-reaching administrative and regulatory policy changes that have dramatically improved the lives of LGBT people in all 50 states and around the world.”
Most recently, in Obama’s Selma speech, he likened the black civil rights struggle to the later struggles for gay rights. “We are the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge,” Obama declared from the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of one of the many bloody conflicts that marked the black civil rights struggle.
Although Obama’s statements and legislative actions may make him seem to be a champion of LGBT rights, he has been less effective at resolving rampant violence against the queer community. Statistics from the New York-based National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs show an ongoing trend of violence against the queer community, indicating that even larger civil rights questions are at issue. The NCAVP stats show that in 2013 in the 13 states where their affiliates track violence data, there were 2,001 incidents of anti-LGBT violence. Among these incidents there were at least 18 documented cases of homicide. As the report does not compile a national sample, it is very likely that the number of incidents across the nation is much higher. The 2014 NCAVP report is due out at the end of May.
To make matters worse, the study showed that the police are sometimes hostile against members of the LGBT community as well. The study showed that 32 percent of hate crime survivors experienced hostile attitudes from the police officers they interacted with, a number that has increased from previous years.
While Obama acknowledges blood running in the streets from gay Americans under attack, and he has taken strides to improve the situation, there is more to be done. While things such as anti-discriminatory housing are important, none of that matters when people never make it home. The next major focus for the Administration could be an effort toward ending the violence, but what exact policies could be implemented to that end?
The NCAVP report advocates for better data collection to track incidents of violence against LGBT and HIV-affected communities, for public education to end homophobia and for more attention to police bias. The coalition also recommends more funding for anti-violence programs. Stricter enforcement, police accountability and better police relations with the queer community could go a long way toward stemming the tide of violence against the LGBT community.
Meanwhile, Obama has also taken his focus on LGBT issues beyond the U.S., to a larger global stage. Mark Goldberg of the UN Dispatch reported on the recent debate within the United Nations regarding supporting same-sex relationships of UN employees. Russia was pushing a resolution to “curtail benefits afforded to the same-sex spouses of UN staff” but Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, of South Korea, blocked the resolution. Goldberg stated that, “without a U.S. government so deeply engaged on these issues at the United Nations the vote tally might have been much different and this indignity against LGBT rights may have stood a better chance of succeeding.”
In the very near future, the American public will find itself amidst an intense presidential election, including platforms for and against LGBT rights issues. Vaughn believes that while LGBT social issues will become increasingly important as time goes on, it remains unlikely that we will see left-leaning candidates basing their whole campaigns around that one controversial issue, but it is sure to be a major point of debate.
Obama has undoubtedly accomplished more on the behalf of the queer community than any previous president. By talking about LGBT issues on national television, and passing a number of laws aimed to protect those individuals, Obama is leading the charge on LGBT equality. Obama mentioning the words “bisexual” and “transgender” in his speech are major milestones. His presidency has improved the quality of life for LGBT individuals through a number of statutes and administrative initiatives but there still remains space for improvement.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.