June 10, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Obama earns mixed reviews on LGBT progress

Once hailed as a ‘fierce advocate’ of LGBT equality, President Obama now inspires mixed reviews from activists. (Photo by Pete Souza; courtesy of the White House)

After 18 months in office, the harsh realities of politics and compromise have caught up to President Obama. Hailed as a champion of LGBT rights during the 2008 campaign, LGBT rights advocates now give Obama mixed reviews for his performance to date.

In a statement to the Blade, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said “there’s no doubt” that Obama has done more for LGBT people than any other U.S. president in history.

“Within the constraints of current law, he’s advanced policies that will vastly improve the lives of tens of millions,” Solmonese said. “Has change occurred quickly enough? No. The pace of change will never be quick enough for a community that is consistently denied their equality.”

Solmonese noted that LGBT people continue to face inequality on “a whole host of fronts” that could be remedied through legislative or policy change.

“But none of that obscures the fact that this president has and will continue to be our partner and advocate,” Solmonese said.

But Richard Socarides, a gay New York attorney who was an adviser to former President Clinton, has a very different view of Obama’s tenure. Socarides said there’s a “pretty strong consensus that it’s been a disappointing 18 months.”

Among Obama’s early disappointments, Socarides said, was the invitation to Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in California and staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, to give the invocation during last year’s inauguration.

More recently, Socarides said he was unhappy that Obama approved a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal compromise that “did not include a non-discrimination rule, nor even actual repeal.”

“When Obama took office, these were our priorities: open military service, a federal statute banning workplace discrimination, and repeal of federal anti-marriage laws,” Socarides said. “You tell me how we’re doing.”

Socarides also criticized the White House for failing to install a senior official whose primary responsibility is LGBT rights, much like the role he held in the Clinton administration.

“There is no gay person in Obama’s inner circle, period,” Socarides said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama ran on a commitment to bring change to all Americans — including LGBT people — and since taking office, the president has “taken many steps toward achieving that goal.”

Inouye noted the signing of federal hate crimes legislation as among Obama’s accomplishments for LGBT people and said the president looks forward to signing more pro-LGBT legislation.

“The president and his administration remain committed to achieving equality for all, and it’s clear that we’re moving forward,” Inouye said.

Two years ago, he issued an open letter during Pride month outlining his promises to the LGBT community.

“I’m running for president to build an America that lives up to our founding promise of equality for all — a promise that extends to our gay brothers and sisters,” Obama wrote at the time. “It’s wrong to have millions of Americans living as second‐class citizens in this nation. And I ask for your support in this election so that together we can bring about real change for all LGBT Americans.”

In the letter, Obama pledged to “place the weight” of his administration behind the enactment of hate crimes protections legislation and to pass a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Obama has sometimes been credited with having a role in the decision to advance the hate crimes legislation last year as an amendment to defense authorization legislation.

Progress on ENDA, on the other hand, has been stagnant. The bill remains pending before committees in the House and Senate and many supporters are concerned that lawmakers won’t take up the bill by year’s end.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, noted that Obama “exerted appropriate influence” in guiding the hate crimes legislation toward passage.

On ENDA, Keisling said the administration has been “as helpful as they can be” to this point, and she expects the president “will be a lot more helpful once it starts moving.”

At this point, Keisling said “there really hasn’t yet been much for them to do” on ENDA.

Keisling noted that for congressional hearings on ENDA last year in the House and Senate, the administration sent officials who provided “really great testimony” in favor of moving forward with the legislation.

“If the president had prioritized ENDA instead of, I don’t know, health care reform or financial reform or bank bailouts, we’d be better off, but he prioritized what he prioritized,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that when ENDA does start moving, the White House will be extremely supportive and will help get it done.”

Also in the letter, Obama promised to “use the bully pulpit” to urge states to treat same-sex couples equally in their family and adoption laws. He additionally advocated for the establishment of civil unions as the best way to advance rights for LGBT couples.

“But I also believe that the federal government should not stand in the way of states that want to decide on their own how best to pursue equality for gay and lesbian couples — whether that means a domestic partnership, a civil union, or a civil marriage,” Obama wrote.

Additionally, the presidential candidate said he supported “complete repeal” of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does,” Obama wrote.

Obama has stuck to his position on same-sex marriage as several jurisdictions — such as Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and D.C. — have advanced marriage rights for same-sex couples. The White House has either said nothing in response to those developments or reiterated that Obama prefers civil unions.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York-based Freedom to Marry, said Obama has “taken some positive steps” in advocating for same-sex couples, but hasn’t “matched his actions to his words.”

Wolfson said Obama should be leading the fight to repeal DOMA legislatively through the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill pending in the U.S. House, and should stop urging judges to “rubberstamp” DOMA in Justice Department briefs defending the statute against legal challenges.

“And, most importantly, he should make the case to the American people that same-sex couples deserve fair and equal treatment under the law — using personal stories and appeals to values such as fairness, respect for commitment and the Golden Rule,” Wolfson said.

Another item that Obama mentioned in the letter is repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Late last month, Congress voted in favor of a compromise measure that would end the law after the Pentagon completes its study on the issue at the end of the year.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the White House’s endorsement of the compromise the week that Congress voted on it was helpful in finding the votes needed to advance the measure.

“The fact that the White House was willing to come out and publicly support a repeal plan and get the Pentagon to do the same was a critical element in getting that passed in the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Nicholson said.

Still, Nicholson said he didn’t know how involved Obama was in lobbying members of the House and Senate directly to vote in favor of repeal once the deal was reached.

Also in the letter, Obama pledged to work to address HIV/AIDS, arguing that “we do not have to choose between values and science” in working to fight the epidemic.

“While abstinence education should be part of any strategy, we also need to use common sense,” he wrote. “We should have age‐appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception.”

Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said he had mixed feelings about Obama’s track record on the matter.

“There have been a lot of positives, but there still needs to be greater attention in response and resources,” he said.

Schmid said Obama has followed through on his plans to confront HIV/AIDS through scientific means and has set out to eliminate “abstinence-only” sex education programs through the budget process.

But Schmid noted the abstinence-only sex education programs were reinstated by amendment in the passage of the health care reform legislation.

“It’s not in the appropriations bill, but it’s in the managerial program now, just like it was in the past,” he said.

Schmid cited the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act as an accomplishment regarding HIV/AIDS, as well as passage of health care reform legislation, which he called a “huge, huge, huge accomplishment.”

He said the White House was of limited help, though, in pushing to renew funding under the Ryan White Care Act.

“The administration was very slow in getting their principle and positions out on getting the Ryan White reauthorized,” he said. “They didn’t speak out and early enough. Ryan White is up for renewal in 2013 — right before all this health care reform kicks in. We’re going to need the administration’s support for the continuation of Ryan White after 2013.”

Noting a national AIDS strategy is currently being developed in the White House, Schmid said he hopes the plan will provide the discussion of homosexuality at appropriate ages in sex education programs because HIV is often transmitted through men who have sex with men.

Schmid gave Obama credit for lifting the travel ban that prevented foreign nationals with HIV from entering the country, although he noted this process began under the Bush administration with the passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief legislation.

Obama closed his letter by calling on people to step “outside our comfort zone” to win broader support for LGBT rights in places often considered homophobic, such as black churches.

“If we want to repeal DOMA, repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and implement fully inclusive laws outlawing hate crimes and discrimination in the workplace, we need to bring the message of LGBT equality to skeptical audiences as well as friendly ones — and that’s what I’ve done throughout my career,” Obama wrote.

In the letter, Obama noted that he spoke out against homophobia during the presidential campaign at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., where Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached.

Obama also spoke out against homophobia during a February speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C., a gathering of Christian evangelical leaders. And late last month, Obama spoke in favor of LGBT rights during his keynote speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s centennial convention.

Sharon Lettman, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said Obama has “absolutely” been faithful to his promise of speaking out in favor of LGBT rights in places that are sometimes deemed unfriendly to LGBT people.

“I’ve experienced it on a number of occasions in predominantly black or all black venues,” she said. “Even in his normal stump speech, he makes reference to his support of LGBT equality.”

Lettman said as the first black president, Obama has a special role to play in educating black Americans about the LGBT community.

“He makes a point to always be inclusive,” she said. “He doesn’t selectively leave it out — not just in black churches, but in front of civil rights leaders and civil rights venues, like the NAACP convention, and other areas.”

Lettman said Obama is “definitely trying to paint a picture of one America” in his actions and his speeches.

“In so many ways, even in the progressive agenda, people don’t always select to include our community,” she said, “and I have to give him a lot of credit for making sure that he speaks with one voice about his support for LGBT equality.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

19 Comments
  • D Minus. And an F for HRC being a WH lapdog.

  • “Once hailed as a ‘fierce advocate’ of LGBT equality”

    WTF? He said that about HIMSELF. And like everything else he says, not only was it a lie, it demonstrates his tendency toward narcissistic delusions of grandeur. Not only does he fail, he never even once showed up to class…

    • But but Joe might not get invited to the WH for cocktails if he doesn’t behave. HRC has become absolutely pathetic in giving this administration. They should be part of the Don’t Ask Don’t Give campaign. Let’s stop giving money to this worthless organization.

  • The article fails to mention the numerous offensive anti-gay briefs filed by this administration’s Justice Dept. which, among other things, have compared same-sex marriage to incestuous pederasty; its defenses of DoMA and DADT in court; and its subsequent lies that such decisions were obligatory (see http://www.americablog.com/2009/06/obama-justice-department-defends-doma.html ). It also doesn’t mention the behind-the-scenes pressure the Obama administration exerted on Congress against moving forward with DADT legislation.

  • This just goes to show the disconnect between HRC and other advocacy groups, and the reality of daily LGBT life in this country. The President and his cabinet have done nothing to move any part of the equality agenda forward. Even the Hate Crimes legislation has no teeth, as states across the country are ignoring it, and those who seek Federal support under it are ignored or delayed in response. All he’s really done is given Federal government workers some benefits. . .the rest of us are left in the dust. As soon as a Republican president is elected, all that advancement will just go away (which means it was no advancement at all). This writer is soft peddling in an attempt to paint a balanced picture, but in actuality this administration has done nothing of real substance or merit to deserve our praise or appreciation.

  • invalidresponse

    ‘fierce advocate?’… words JUST words

    With advocates like that, we might as well have republicans in control. Oh, oops I forgot, with minority numbers they ARE in control, because this president refuses to be a leader, or make a firm decision, or go to bat for ANYTHING!!

    I’d rather fight a battle face to face knowing my opponent, then be stabbed in the back by my “fierce advocate”

    Words don’t cut it, Mr Pres. with anyone EXCEPT the HRC, and those (just in it for the perks and the cocktail parties)guys don’t represent me. Thank you very much!!

  • Goodhope Smiling

    Maybe it’s just me but I think it is ridiculous that you chose to write an article about the LGBT response to the Obama Administration and had only one woman of color who happens not to be a lesbian commenting on the progress of LBGT equality. You even managed to rake up a Bush appointee to criticize. Have you no sense of shame or appropriateness. Get some Black and Brown and Asian LGBT voices to speak to issues for a change. It is unacceptable to have an article of this import with so little diversity.

  • Khadijah A. Tribble

    How does one’s disdain for HRC translate into this administration’s being worse than a republican one.

    I don’t know about any of the commentators of this article, but when Obama got elected I wasn’t considering citizenship in Canada like I was with the last administration. I’m always amazed at the ‘gay agenda’ in its lopsided thinking that the only issues impacting the Gay community are the DOMA, DADT and ENDA. In the 18 months that President Obama has been in office, he’s raised the visibility of the challenges LGBT families face in way no other President has. What have any of you wining about HRC done other then whine.

    Pick up a cause other than you own and get over yourself.

  • “D Minus” & “Not only does he fail, he never even once showed up to class…” Really? And Mr. Socarides is unhappy that Obama doesn’t have a WH role like the one he had in Clinton’s administration? Not a very effective role apparently since we have DOMA & DADT thanks to Clinton. So it was really better under Bush? I’m sure Palin, Romney or Huckabee will be a better advocate of our rights!

  • Who the hell said we were better under Bush? You Obama zombies should know better than anyone that his popularity sprang from a message of change. Optimism is the very essence of the mantra “Yes we can!”. Yet you all are the very ones telling us to quit demanding the impossible and settle for our god damn half empty glasses. Well, from where I stand, mine’s only half full, and I’m going to scream at the top of my lungs at Power until somebody fills it up.

  • Those not still mainlining the Obama Borg Kool Aid know he:

    1. GUTTED any GUARANTEE of an end to discharges from the amendment;
    2. GUTTED the explicit ban on discrimination against gays in the military from the amendment;
    3. GUTTED permission for those already discharged to reenlist from the amendment;
    4. REFUSED to order his SECDEF and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to salute those three key mandates making the DOD a virtual fourth branch of government;
    5. Instead EMPOWERED Gates to come up with and spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a phony “study” built entirely around the PREMISE that allowing out gays to serve would hurt the military and intended to stall ending discharges, and still with the potential of its “findings” being used to continue the ban permanently;
    6. REFUSED to use the legal power Congress gave him to unilaterally stop discharges which he’s said himself “weaken national security”
    1. GUTTED any GUARANTEE of an end to discharges from the amendment
    2. GUTTED the explicit ban on discrimination against gays in the military from the amendment
    3. GUTTED permission for those already discharged to reenlist from the amendment
    4. REFUSED to order his SECDEF and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to salute those three key mandates
    5. Instead EMPOWERED Gates to come up with and spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a phony “study” built entirely around the PREMISE that allowing out gays to serve would hurt the military and intended to stall ending discharges, and still with the potential of its “findings” being used to continue the ban permanently
    6. REFUSED to use the legal power Congress gave him to unilaterally stop discharges which he’s said himself “weaken national security”;
    7. Instead he has DISCHARGED over 600 gays since being sworn, and is still discharging them, according to SLDN, under the “old rules” contrary to new ones released March 25th;
    8. REFUSED to order Gates to follow the YEAR & A HALF OLD 9th Circuit Court Witt decision banning any discharges within its multi-state jurisdiction when the military has not proven that the INDIVIDUAL damages unit cohesion. Gates finally promised on Feb. 2nd to announce such policies by mid-March but still hasn’t.
    9. DEFENDED DADT in court more than half a dozen times with the same homophobic language used to pass it in 1993;
    10. CLAIMED DADT has been ruled constitutional by Supreme Court when it never has;
    11. Done NOTHING to keep his promise to pass ENDA;
    12. Done NOTHING to keep his promise to pass UAFA;
    13. Done NOTHING to keep his promise to repeal DOMA;
    14. Instead, DEFENDED DOMA in court repeatedly in terms even more homophobic than those used to pass it originally;
    15. Did NOTHING, by any objective standards, to help pass the hate crimes bill other than posing for a photo with Judy Shepard;
    16. Is being sued by Lambda Legal for refusing to let a lesbian federal court employee buy insurance for her partner despite a court order clearly indicating it would NOT be a violation of DOMA; nor would it cost the government a cent;
    17. Thrown cheap crumbs at us like hospital visitation which even the Antigay Industry supports;
    18. Told reporters for the homohating Catholic Church that, “As a Christian, I’m constantly wrestling with my faith and my solicitude and regard and concern for gays and lesbians.”

    • Your emphasis of “premise” suggests you don’t know its definition.

      Stop-loss is political poison, and not a desirable solution.

      You have no evidence that the study is “phony.”

      I’m skeptical that circuit courts can set idiosyncratic rules for the national military.

      I’d like a link to support for 10, as I don’t believe he’s ever said that.

      The briefs filed defending DOMA used language and arguments that exist in the case law and literature.

      The suit over the federal court employee has more to do with defining the role of a circuit judge in administrative, rather than judicial, matters than it does LGBT rights.

  • Maybe I am just out of my league but I am wondering just what is expected of this man with everything that is on his plate. I want equal and fair rights like everyone else but the main concern for now should be jobs and this economy that we are suffering. It just seems that as the gay community that we are fighting just to repeal DADT and take care of DOMA. Honorable causes but self centered. I would rather hear us yelling at our people in congress as well as the White House about the big picture instead of what just fits for my demographic. I know that change will take time. I know that politicians will always be the same. I also know that our voice and actions will help us all(Straight, Gay, Brown, Disabled,etc)

  • The list that Michael put together says it clearly.
    I saw something scary the other day. I live in Southern CA and saw a car with 2 bumper stickers – the first was the HRC equality sticker, and the second was “Re-elect Obama in 2012″!
    Not sure who is putting the Re-elect Obama bumper stickers, but it seems like most HRC folks are still high since Obama spoke at their fund-raising dinner in October.
    Dump the parties of Wall Street and the banks!

  • While we must hold Democrats accountable, and only donate to, support, and vote for those who support equality, we need to remember that overall, the Republicans are far worse. Withholding support from all Democrats only helps elect Republicans. We need to support those who support us, and work against those who wish to deny our equality.

    Voting your principals is important, especially in the primaries. But if your final choice is between someone who says the right things but doesn’t deliver much, or someone who will intentionally harm you, it becomes important to vote against the one who will harm you. Half a step forward is better than moving backward. Progress is not automatic or inevitable. We must deny power to those who believe we should be punished and are willing to use the law to do it.

    • Im sorry, but I have been in this fight too long with the politicians. The only solution is through the courts and for us to SUE every time our Constitutional rights are infringed.

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