One year from now, American voters will return to the polls to elect their next president. It seems like just yesterday that Barack Obama took the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park after handily defeating John McCain to win the White House.
Obama’s victory represented a historic and iconic moment. And, for the first time, LGBT Americans were along for the ride in a meaningful way. Indeed, one of the Obama administration’s first acts was to post an LGBT section to the official White House website almost immediately upon Obama taking the oath of office. Since then, Obama has mostly honored his promises and commitments to LGBT voters and his support has grown from the symbolic (White House website upgrades) to the bold (refusing to defend DOMA).
Three years later, the 2012 campaign is already well underway, with fundraisers, GOP debates, wildly swinging polls and scandals of the week playing out. Sadly, as Obama and his administration have rolled out pro-LGBT advances — and as Obama himself slowly inches toward an inevitable embrace of marriage equality — his GOP counterparts have moved backward.
From Michele Bachmann’s twisted endorsement of “reparative therapy” to Herman Cain’s schizophrenic views on marriage to Mitt Romney’s laughable flip-flops on our issues, the GOP still doesn’t get it. Just three years after Sen. John McCain granted an interview to the Blade — a first for a Republican presidential nominee — and spoke movingly of his gay role models, the GOP hopefuls aspire to roll back the clock and reinstate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and push for a federal ban on same-sex marriage. This isn’t progress; it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator, something the GOP has turned into a sick art form.
Despite the GOP’s sorry homophobic record, a solid 25 percent or more of gay voters regularly support the Republican presidential candidate on Election Day. As we start the process of evaluating Obama’s record in preparation for November 2012, it’s instructive to look back at candidate Obama’s 2008 promises and words.
Back then, in September 2008, Obama granted the Blade an interview in which he outlined his views. A few highlights follow. Obama:
- criticized President Bush’s record on combating the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic and promised to implement a “comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies.”
- promised to “make sure the voices of LGBT people are heard in the White House” and criticized Bush for eliminating the position of liaison to the LGBT community.
- vowed to “work to pass a fully inclusive version” of ENDA and to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act and to enact a federal hate crimes law inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.
How does Obama’s record stack up? As Obama noted in his interview, much of what he hoped to accomplish hinged on Democratic control of Congress and its priorities. Obama and the Democrats succeeded in passing the hate crimes expansion and, with key Republican support, in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” ENDA, sadly, is another matter. It stalled amid assertions that then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t want to subject conservative Democrats to more than one gay-related vote at a time. When “Don’t Ask” repeal turned into the drawn out debacle it did, scheduling an ENDA vote was a non-starter as the clock ran out. Congress should have adopted a more aggressive posture on ENDA and taken better advantage of its large Democratic majorities early in Obama’s term. Once the Republicans retook the House, pro-LGBT initiatives were dead in the water. DOMA repeal never happened, either, but Obama’s Justice Department took the bold and welcome step of refusing to defend the statute in court.
On other promises, Obama did lay out a national HIV/AIDS strategy after holding 14 town hall events in cities around the country that drew several thousand attendees. The strategy is LGBT-inclusive from the very first page in which sexual orientation and gender identity are included in the vision statement. Unfortunately, the nation’s AIDS Drug Assistance Programs have seen a spike in patients stuck on waiting lists. The ADAP waiting lists made national headlines last summer, when, for the first time, the number of people on such lists topped 9,000. ADAP is part of the federal Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program authorized by Congress.
Obama has appointed a record number of openly LGB and, yes, even T people to administration positions, most notably John Berry as head of the Office of Personnel Management. DNC official Brian Bond was named to the role of LGBT liaison, though his job was broader than just LGBT concerns. Bond left that post and Gautam Raghavan took over last month.
Perhaps more importantly, Obama has included LGBT issues in his broader agenda, including extending hospital visitation rights to partners of LGBT patients. One of the most memorable and impactful moments I’ve been fortunate to witness during his term occurred during Obama’s 2009 Pride month commemoration at the White House. In remarks to LGBT attendees, Obama said, “Welcome to your house.” It was a simple gesture, but one that made a huge impact on those in the room, including me. And it neatly sums up Obama’s approach. We are part of his agenda and welcome in his administration. The same cannot be said of the Republican field, with the possible exception of Jon Hunstman, who’s mired in the back of the pack and last week polled at just 2 percent support in Iowa.
But this isn’t a Bill Clinton/John Kerry moment in which LGBT people are stuck voting for the Democrat not because they are true advocates but because the alternative is so much worse. This time around, in Barack Obama, LGBT voters have a presidential candidate who truly supports them and backs up the words with action. Is Obama perfect? Of course not. But he’s battled a severe recession, multiple wars and an opposition party that has said its No. 1 goal is not to fix the economy or find jobs but rather to limit Obama to one term. In that environment, Obama has performed well on LGBT issues and will surely endorse marriage equality in 2013. The Republican nominee remains to be determined, but if it’s any of the announced candidates, then voters concerned about LGBT equality will have an easy decision one year from now.