President Obama has been heavily criticized by many LGBT rights activists since taking office. A lot of queers helped make him President, including me. He made various campaign promises and there have been a lot of public statements that he has been much too slow in acting on them.
I’ve always felt kinda bad about that, that he was unnecessarily targeted too soon. It’s important to keep the pressure on of course, but I think people need to be pragmatic.
I’ve also felt kinda bad about voting for Obama, in the sense that by voting for him I was partly responsible for handing him an almost impossible task. During the 2008 campaign I despaired, thinking that no matter who was elected as President they’d be lucky in the extreme to come out of their term looking good. The Bush administration made a huge mess of this country and Americans have been expecting Obama to quickly clean it all up ever since. (Or what really grates my cheese, blaming him for problems that already existed when he took office!)
In that light I was very willing to be patient. Queer rights are immensely important to me. But I think it’s a bit self-centered to make them more important than issues that were of more immediate concern because of their critical nature to our country and to all Americans. I promised that I would only have fits and shout betrayal if nothing significant was accomplished by the end of Obama’s first term.
My patience and pragmatism is paying off. President Obama is coming through for us.
As one of his first acts in support of gay rights Obama extended what benefits were allowed under existing laws to same-sex partners of federal employees in June 2009. (DOMA prohibits some rights and benefits from being included.)
In April 2010 Obama directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to require all hospitals that receive federal Medicare and Medicaid funding (which is most of them) to prohibit discrimination in visitation based on many factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity. This was in response to the tragic situation a lesbian couple faced in Florida where a dying woman’s partner and children were prevented from seeing her, despite all their legal documents.
After stating in the 2010 State of the Union address that he would do so, Obama helped with the final push for the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military. He signed the legislation into law at the end of last year. On July 22nd he certified that the repeal requirements of the legislation have been met and starting on September 20th, 2011 queers will be able to openly serve in the United States armed forces.
In February of this year President Obama instructed the Justice Department to cease defending DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), citing as the reason that it is unconstitutional. There are several cases winding their way up through the courts right now, some or all probably headed for the Supreme Court. Obama could have just let things take their natural course, but instead he was proactive, taking a clear stand for equal rights.
On July 19th this year Obama endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA. This one is huge because it’s extremely rare for a President to endorse legislation that hasn’t been passed in one of the Houses yet. In this case it hasn’t even come out of committee, the first hearing was just held this last week.
Yes, it’s frustrating that Obama has not come out and clearly stated that he supports marriage equality. He praised the recent New York state law that grants same-sex couples the right to marry, but stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage himself.
The pragmatic part of me understands that. He’s got an election year coming up. So I’m willing to put up with a little wishy washy political dancing around. Would Obama making that statement be worth the potential price of a socially conservative Republican replacing him?
In his two and a half years as President, Obama has done more for queer rights than any other President in history. We still have a long way to go, but Obama has done a lot for us and I thank him for that. Grassroots movements are vitally important, but it also takes the leadership of people in power at the top to truly effect change, both in terms of policy/laws and in terms of public opinion.
For a detailed listing of what the Obama Administration has done see this page at the HRC website.