Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening, President Obama delivered the first State of the Union address of his second term that included one overt reference to gay people in addition to a veiled reference to the LGBT community as he highlighted other initiatives.
Obama’s most explicit gay reference came when he pledged to “do whatever we must” to protect U.S. troops serving the country overseas. At that point, Obama touted the extension of limited partner benefits to gay troops that was announced by the Pentagon a day earlier — possibly alluding to further benefits upon repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
“As long as I’m commander in chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world,” Obama said. “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal treatment for their families — gay and straight.”
Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said Obama “was very clear” that gay service members and their families should be treated equally — but noted the work isn’t finished.
“To finish the task, the Supreme Court must strike down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” Robinson said. “Secretary Panetta’s successor must enact equal opportunity and non-discrimination policies that protect LGBT troops and ensure America’s military can attract and retain America’s best. And outmoded, obsolete policies that bar qualified American patriots who are transgender from military service must be eliminated.”
A less overt — but more forward looking — reference to the LGBT community came at the beginning of his speech when Obama alluded to gay people when talking about removing barriers preventing Americans from joining the middle class “no matter … who you love.”
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth,” Obama said. “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, or who you love.”
That remark has been interpreted as a call on Congress to pass employment non-discrimination protections because the absence of such a law is seen as an impediment to LGBT workers reaching economic prosperity. Prior to the address, advocates were hopeful Obama would use the occasion of the State of the Union address to push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and pledge to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT job bias.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, was among those who interpreted the remarks as an allusion ”to the need to outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans” — but called on Obama to take more action.
“First, the president should sign the executive order adding LGBT workplace protections to almost 25 percent of all American jobs,” Almeida said. “Second, he should encourage Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep his three-year-old promise to bring ENDA to a vote on the Senate floor for a long overdue vote.”
Almeida added he wants Obama to “explicitly call on both chambers of Congress to pass ENDA” in another speech sometime before the Senate vote expected this year.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, took a broader view.
“I think that it’s broader and more significant in that it includes kind of a broad sweep of the inclusion of gay people in the middle class,” Sainz said. “And so, it has everything to do with employment and opportunity and every hope and dream that LGBT have.”
Asked whether the language satisfies his previous call for Obama to lay out plans for the LGBT executive order during the State of the Union, Sainz said he thinks it falls short of that request, but said it’s still significant.
“I don’t think he necessarily speaks to it directly, but I do think that it is further evidence of … mainstreaming of LGBT people in all aspects of American life,” Sainz said.
The LGBT references build off the stronger references that Obama made during his inaugural speech when he invoked the Stonewall riots and said ”the love we commit to one another must be equal.” In his three previous State of the Union speeches, Obama has also mentioned the LGBT community and talked about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
Obama also made a reference to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic when he talked about the United States pushing to make progress in poorer countries.
The president hit on “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation,” then, diverting from his prepared remarks, said it’s “within our reach.” That term was coined by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of the Obama administration’s pledge to rid the world of the disease.
Kali Lindsey, director of legislative and public affairs for the National Minority AIDS Council, said in a statement Obama’s remarks are a call to action “to make AIDS this century’s polio.”
“This includes continued funding for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program,” Lindsey said. “It also means continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act in a way that meets the needs of those living with and vulnerable to chronic and communicable diseases, like HIV.”
Obama also made an implicit LGBT reference when he called on the House to pass the version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that the Senate had passed on a bipartisan vote just hours earlier. The Senate version of the bill has explicit LGBT language to help LGBT victims of domestic violence.
“Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago,” Obama said. “I urge the House to do the same.”
But an LGBT references was notably left out of Obama’s speech when he talked about the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform without mentioning the potential separation that bi-national same-sex couples face in the United States.
Instead, Obama talked about “a responsible pathway” to citizenship that includes a background check and learning English and fixing problems in the legal immigration system. Obama included gay couples in the plan he unveiled for reform.
The LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL expressed disappointment in the State of the Union address.
“As someone who would qualify for the DREAM Act and who is part of a bi-national family, I know first-hand that true comprehensive immigration reform must include LGBTQ families, a fair and just pathway to citizenship, and an end to harsh enforcement that separates families,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, GetEQUAL’s national field director.
Heather Cronk, GetEQUAL’s managing director, criticized Obama for not committing to signing an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT job bias for federal contractors — noting he announced other directives, such as one related to cybersecurity. She was among those who protested at the White House on Sunday over the non-discrimination directive.
“He had his pen out today to sign other executive orders — it’s incumbent on the LGBT community to ask why he decided to put that pen away before protecting 25 percent of the American workforce from workplace discrimination,” Cronk said.
Local members of the LGBT community were among the guests during the State of the Union. The White House invited Tracey Hepner, a lesbian Arlington, Va., resident and co-founder of Military Partners and Families Coalition, to sit with first lady Michelle Obama. She’s the spouse of the military’s first openly gay flag officer, Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith.
Also in attendance was Kelly Costello, a lesbian Potomac, Md., resident, who was invited by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act. Costello and her Peruvian native spouse Fabiola Morales, who married in Washington, D.C., are a bi-national same-sex couples fighting to stay together in the United States.
LGBT members of Congress praise address
While some advocacy groups were calling on Obama to take more action after the State of the Union address, LGBT lawmakers praised Obama when speaking with the Blade in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall after the speech.
Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said Obama’s LGBT-inclusiveness builds off the remarks that he gave on LGBT issues during his inaugural address.
“We started on the inaugural address,” Baldwin said. “We talked about the fact that the inclusion was poetic, and sort of weaving into the larger fabric of movements throughout our nation’s history. Today, I was pleased with the power of his language, especially with regard to seeing through the implementation of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and respecting not only the right to serve, but the right to full recognition for families and service members.”
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the only openly bisexual member of Congress, said she was pleased with the move to expand benefits for gay troops.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Sinema said. “I think the fact that not only did the Department of Defense take this action, but the president referenced it in his speech shows that there is widespread acceptance. Not only that, but this is not a controversial issue.”
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the first openly gay Asian-American in Congress, was seated next to Sinema in the gallery and said they nudged each other when Obama mentioned partner benefits for gay troops.
“I certainly applaud the president for not only mentioning it in his inaugural speech, but he also made a reference to LGBT equality in my first State of the Union,” Takano said. “What a thing that is, so I’m hopeful we’ll move forward in this Congress.”
One member of Congress who wouldn’t speak to the Blade about the State of the Union was anti-gay Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.). Asked whether she would provide a comment for the Blade, Hartzler replied, “Ah, that’s OK.”