The State of the Union address is considered a pivotal speech for U.S. presidents in shaping their agenda for the year ahead, and the last three haven’t shied from including LGBT people in their proposed policies.
Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each made references to policy items affecting LGBT people. Clinton was the first, Bush’s proposed policies were entirely negative and Obama has incorporated LGBT people into his speeches consistently.
The Washington Blade has complied a list of mentions of LGBT issues in State of the Union speeches, all of which were made in recent times. The list doesn’t include mentions of HIV-related items, although Clinton, Bush and Obama each called on Congress to appropriate funds to combat the disease in their speeches.
1999 — Clinton calls for hate crimes, ENDA passage
President Clinton made a reference to two pieces of landmark legislation during his 1999 State of the Union, calling on Congress to pass hate crimes protections legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“Discrimination or violence because of race or religion, ancestry or gender, disability or sexual orientation, is wrong, and it ought to be illegal,” Clinton said. “Therefore, I ask Congress to make the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act the law of the land.”
After the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyo., in 1996, Clinton had endorsed legislation to make violent crimes based on anti-gay animus part of federal law. Clinton was also known as a supporter of ENDA, a bill that in its current version would bar workplace discrimination against LGBT people.
2000 – Clinton makes first explicit reference of ‘gay’
The next year, Clinton tried again to encourage Congress to pass hate crimes protection legislation and ENDA, saying for the first time during a State of the Union address the word “gay.”
Clinton made the appeal to pass both pieces of legislation when talking about incidents of hate crimes against minorities throughout the country.
“We saw a young man murdered in Wyoming just because he was gay,” Clinton said. “Last year we saw the shootings of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Jewish children just because of who they were. This is not the American way, and we must draw the line. I ask you to draw that line by passing without delay the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.”
After Clinton’s call, hate crimes legislation received a floor vote in 2000 as part of an amendment to the major Pentagon budget legislation. No attempt was made to pass ENDA on the floor that year.
Congress passed hate crimes legislation nine years later under President Obama; ENDA continues to languish in Congress and no explicit federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers are in place.
2004 — Bush calls for anti-gay constitutional amendment
Preparing for his re-election campaign, President George W. Bush made a reference in his 2004 State of the Union speech affecting gay people, but in a negative way.
In the year after the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized marriage equality, Bush used his speech to call for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, saying “a strong America must also value the institution of marriage.”
“Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives,” Bush said. “On an issue of such great consequence, the people’s voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”
Following his call for a Federal Marriage Amendment, both chambers of the Republican-controlled Congress vote on the measure, but the measure failed in both chambers.
Bush’s call for the amendment so invoked the ire of then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was present in the audience, that he elected on his own to issue marriage licenses to gay couples in San Francisco City Hall. His actions were later rescinded by the California Supreme Court.
2005 — Bush renews call for federal marriage amendment
Fresh off his re-election win after campaigning on a Federal Marriage Amendment and the passage of 11 state constitutional anti-gay marriage amendments, Bush renewed his call for a Federal Marriage Amendment.
“Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be redefined by activist judges,” Bush said. “For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.”
Although Congress had additional Republican majorities since the previous votes in 2004, the measure failed yet again in both the House and the Senate.
2006 — Bush isn’t done with the FMA
Despite the previous failures of the Federal Marriage Amendment, Bush continued to express concerns about the advancement of same-sex marriage in his 2006 State of the Union address.
“Yet many Americans, especially parents, still have deep concerns about the direction of our culture and the health of our most basic institutions,” Bush said. “They’re concerned about unethical conduct by public officials and discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine marriage.”
That would be the last time Bush would express concerns about same-sex marriage during a State of the Union address. On Election Day in 2006, Democrats won control of both chambers of Congress, giving them control of the floor.
2009 — Obama omits gays from first speech
Although he would later be known for building a record on LGBT rights, President Obama made no explicit reference to LGBT issues during a speech before a joint session of Congress during his first year in office. All his future speeches would make some reference to gay-related issues.
The omission is in line with the perception that Obama was reluctant to tackle LGBT issues, which had proved thorny for President Clinton during his first year in office.
Because the speech was at the start of his first term, the address also technically wasn’t a State of the Union address, but a speech before a joint session of Congress.
2010 — Obama pledges to work to repeal “Don’t Ask’
Obama’s first mention of any gay issue during a State of the Union address was in 2010 in which he pledged to move forward with the process of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are,” Obama said.
Amid increasing pressure for Obama to act on ending the ban on openly gay service members, LGBT advocates widely praised the words — even those critical of him for not taking executive action to stop the discharges.
And Obama’s words during the speech were prophetic. After a 10-month study at the Pentagon and long struggle of moving legislation through the Congress to repeal the 1993 law, Obama signed legislation at the end of the year repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
2011 — Obama pledges to finish the job on ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal
A month after having signed the repeal into law, Obama made another reference to the ban on open service by pledging to certify “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by the end of the year.
“Our troops come from every corner of this country,” Obama said. “They’re black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”
Although President Obama signed repeal legislation in the previous month, the ban would only be lifted after he, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certified the military was ready for repeal.
With no timetable included in the repeal legislation for when certification would have to take place, Obama’s words allayed concerns the process would go on indefinitely with no formal lifting of the ban on open service.
But Obama immediately giving those reassurances called on colleges to allow military recruiters on campuses. Many had barred there presence because they perceived the ban on open service as discriminatory.
“And with that change, I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC,” Obama said. “It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”
Those words drew concern from transgender advocates because although the ban on openly gay service was lifted, the ban on openly trans service was — and remains — still in place.
2012 — Obama includes gays in shout-out to U.S. troops
As part of a general effort to tout “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal heading into his re-election campaign, Obama in his 2012 State of the Union listed gay troops as among those serving in the armed forces.
“When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight,” Obama said.
By this time, certification for open service in the U.S. military had already taken place months ago in September and gay service members were serving openly without fear of discharge.
But that was the only explicit LGBT mention during the State of the Union address, prompting advocates at the time to express disappointment he went no further.
2013 — Obama touts benefits for gay troops
Obama won praise from advocates for his 2013 State of the Union speech by making two references to the gay community, one overt and the other less explicit.
The most overt reference was an appeal to the nation to agree that gay service members are entitled to the same spousal benefits as straight troops.
“We will ensure equal treatment for all servicemembers and equal benefits for their families, gay and straight,” Obama said.
Just weeks earlier under significant pressure from LGBT advocates, the Pentagon pledged to move forward with partner benefits for gay troops available under the law and would have them in place later in the year.
But he also made an implicit gay reference early on in the speech by saying he wants the economy to work for Americans regardless of “who you love” — an apparent reference to gay people that some took as a veiled reference to ENDA.
“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, no matter what you look like or who you love,” Obama said.
2014 — What will happen?
It remains to be seen whether Obama will make any LGBT references in his 2014 State of the Union address on Tuesday. LGBT advocates are calling on him to ask Congress to pass ENDA, pledge to sign an executive order barring LGBT discrimination among federal contractors and explicitly use the word “transgender.”