The Obama administration is coming to an end after eight years of historic gains for LGBT rights, including “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, an executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination in the workforce and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage — just to name a few highlights.
Overseeing those achievements from the very beginning of the Obama administration to the upcoming end on Jan. 20 — and in many cases coordinating the behind-the-scenes efforts for those initiatives — was Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett. As head of the White House Office of Public Engagement & Intergovernmental Affairs, Jarrett was responsible for leading the efforts to advance LGBT equality within the Obama administration.
Reflecting on that progress under President Obama during an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade in the West Wing of the White House, Jarrett said LGBT achievements will “quite prominently” figure into Obama’s legacy after he leaves office.
“One of my favorite quotes is Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote where he says the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” Jarrett said. “And I think that a lot of hard work happened to promote LGBTQ equality before the president took office, but under his watch, it felt like a thunderbolt, and for that the president is extraordinarily proud.”
Although there is widespread fear among many LGBT people that President-elect Trump could undo that progress, Jarrett is skeptical that Trump can reverse the changes because “the progress that we’ve made isn’t simply reflected in the laws that have been passed, although they are very important.”
“What we’ve seen is a shift in public perception and feelings and culture,” Jarrett said. “That is not likely to reverse. And fortunately on issues such as marriage equality, the Supreme Court has ruled and that is unlikely to change.”
Jarrett, 60, said she feels “pretty secure” about changes in the law like the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which she said she hasn’t heard anyone question, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, which she said “is the law of the land and that has been fully embraced by the Department of Defense.”
But as Republicans gear up to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Jarrett said she has “reason to worry” that protections under the law afforded to LGBT people and others will be undone. Jarrett acknowledged the law’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex, which the Obama administration applied to LGBT people, is one such protection, but said the benefits go beyond that.
“I also think that there are many people in the LGBTQ community who didn’t have health insurance and under the Affordable Care Act, they are among the 20 million-plus who now do,” Jarrett said. “As we have been encouraging enrollment, we have, among other groups, have really reached out to the LGBT community to ensure that they are aware of the benefits that come from health insurance and have been encouraging them to sign up during this last enrollment period during the president’s time in office.”
As those enrollment numbers continue to grow, Jarrett said she’s hopeful “that creates additional disincentive to take important benefits from the American people.”
Jarrett said the Trump transition team hasn’t given her any indication about how the upcoming administration might handle LGBT rights. Jarrett declined to comment on whether the Trump team’s lack of discussion of LGBT issues is a good sign.
LGBT advocates have lauded Jarrett and say she was instrumental in coordinating LGBT achievements under eight years of the Obama administration.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, was among those who praised Jarrett.
“Valerie Jarrett’s leadership inside and outside of the White House has been central to advancing our progress under the most pro-equality administration in history,” Griffin said. “She has always been willing to work with us and to fight for us. We could not have had better partners in the West Wing than Valerie and President Obama.”
‘America is at its best when all Americans are treated equally’
Did Obama always believe LGBT rights was a priority for his administration, or did his level of commitment increase over time? After all, Obama didn’t publicly support marriage equality until 2012. Jarrett insisted Obama was committed to advancing LGBT rights from his presidential campaign throughout his White House tenure.
“I think the president came into office with the basic belief that America is at its best when all Americans are treated equally,” Jarrett said. “That includes treating Americans equally no matter who they are and who they love, what their gender identity might be. And we have worked over the course of the last eight years on a whole range of fronts to try to ensure that equality.”
On “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Jarrett said Obama made a 2008 campaign promise to repeal the law and it was “very important to him to honor that campaign commitment.” For Obama, Jarrett said members of the armed forces who are LGBT and “prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country deserve to be able to be honest and open about who they are and who they love, so that was very important to him.”
Recalling Obama signing the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, Jarrett said the president “cared deeply about” a federal hate crimes law and recalled time spent with Judy Shepard, the mother of gay college student Matthew Shepard who was murdered near Laramie, Wyo., because of his sexual orientation.
When former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared in 2011 the Obama administration would no longer defend the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in court, Jarrett said Obama “fully supported the Justice Department’s decision,” and when the U.S. Supreme Court decision against the law came down in 2013, ordered a review to ensure spousal benefits would flow to married same-sex couples to the greatest extent possible under the law.
“It was something the president directed from the top on down to make sure we did that as throughly and as completely as possible,” Jarrett added. “It was very important to him.”
But Jarrett acknowledged that LGBT advocates in some cases took the lead in coming to the administration with ideas, such as seeking guidance ensuring transgender students have restroom access consistent with their gender identity.
“That was an issue that advocates brought to us, and when they did, it seemed obvious it seemed something we should do,” Jarrett said. “And I would say we — through our Office of Public Engagement — have had extensive outreach and engagement for the LGBTQ community with the intent of making sure that our priorities reflected their priorities. And as you look back over the last eight years and the progress we’ve made, I think that there is unification of interest there.”
One issue that LGBT advocates criticized the administration for not tackling sooner was the executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT workplace discrimination. Obama signed the order during his second term in 2014, but that was after years of activism from the LGBT community.
Jarrett attributed the delay in the executive order to the weak economy during Obama’s first term after the 2008 financial crisis, saying the administration during the first term was “reluctant at that point to add additional requirements of any kind, frankly, and we were just at that point, our priority was getting the economy back on track.”
“After the president took office and the economy was in such disarray, in such weak condition — we were cautious about the president signing any executive orders affecting the business community early on, but as the economy began to become more robust, the president looked at both discrimination against the LGBT community, ensuring that contractors were paying equally,” Jarrett said.
Jarrett also said the administration needed to have a groundwork in place before the executive order was handed down, which consisted of surveying the business community as well as collaborating with LGBT advocates and faith organizations about what form the directive would take.
Asked about criticism during the early days of the Obama administration that advances on LGBT rights generally weren’t happening quickly enough, Jarrett said leg work was needed for actions across the board, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“While we were working on the economy, Brian Bond, who worked here, for example, did extensive outreach to the community,” Jarrett said. “The president engaged the military and did a survey of its members, working on exactly the parameters of how exactly repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ would work. So, a lot of the work required spade work that laid the foundation for the progress we made.”
Some of this early discontent came in the form of the LGBT march on Washington, activism by GetEQUAL and Dan Choi chaining himself to the White House fence in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Jarrett said “it’s always healthy to have the public engaged” when asked if those demonstrations against Obama were effective or whether changes those activists were seeking would have happened anyway.
“They should always advocate for their interests,” Jarrett said. “And it’s our responsibility to listen to all those voices and then do what we think reflects the values of our country, and that’s why I’m so proud of the president’s track record because, in the area of civil rights of the LGBT community, it’s a good example of where advocates pushed hard up on an open door. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t push. They should always push. But our door was open.”
The most memorable day at the White House, Jarrett said, was June 26, 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples nationwide. Jarrett said she was the one who informed Obama about the ruling that morning as he was completing his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pickney, who was among the victims of the mass shooting at a Charleston church.
“We spent the morning traveling to Charleston for the funeral for Rev. Pickney and the other eight who were killed that day,” Jarrett said. “And it was a strange juxtaposition of emotion where we were so elated that the Supreme Court ruled the way that it did. We weren’t even expecting the decision that day. We thought it would be the following week, so it was a gift coming early.”
Jarrett recalled the White House, under the coordination of strategic communications adviser Jeff Tiller, was lit the evening of the decision in rainbow colors to express solidarity with LGBT people. That night, Jarrett said she spent two to three hours on the North Portico as the lights went up along with White House staff “who stayed watching the sun go down and the colors of the White House popping into a more brilliant color.”
“That photograph, which Jeff recognized at the time, would be one that helped define the president’s legacy and would be iconic around the world and, in fact, it turned out to be just that,” Jarrett said.
The worst day? Jarrett contrasted the time after the ruling for marriage equality to the weekend in 2012 after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“I still remember being in the Oval Office when the president heard the number of children that were killed and I could not process the number 20, and then when I found out how old they were, it was just unimaginable,” Jarrett said. “And then two days later I travelled with the president to Newtown, where he greeted the individual family members and first responders and spoke at the memorial service. And it was absolutely the worst day since I’ve been here.”
One item left undone for LGBT rights that Jarrett said she wished the Obama administration could have achieved is ensuring the U.S. Justice Department’s assertions about transgender rights remain intact.
Jarrett said the administration is “disappointed” by Judge Reed O’Connor’s nationwide injunctions this year against the Obama administration’s guidance assuring transgender students have access to school bathrooms consistent with their gender identity and the Department of Health & Human Services rule prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in health care.
“Having welcomed many transgender children here at the White House and seen how unnecessarily hard we make their lives — when I say ‘we,’ I don’t mean we at the White House, just to be clear, we the greater society — I think we have to do everything we can to make sure that every child has a chance to grow and achieve their dreams without discrimination or stigma and to be who they are,” Jarrett said. “And I think that although we have made progress in that area, we’re not as far along as a society as I wish we were.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said even with those setbacks, Jarrett and the Obama administration have been great allies and accomplished a lot for transpeople people.
“The most helpful thing in advancing trans rights in the Obama administration was that the president himself was deeply committed to doing the right thing, and his senior people, including Valerie Jarrett, were tremendously forward in moving things along,” Keisling said. “Valerie Jarrett in particular was always supportive, always interested, always available and she always cared. She is somebody who cares about people and wants to do good policy, and it showed for eight years.”
Another piece of unfinished business is affirming the legal theory that federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, also bar sexual orientation discrimination. Although the U.S. Justice Department has asserted those laws apply to transgender people, it has not asserted that for gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
With court cases asserting sexual orientation discrimination is illegal under current law proceeding through the judiciary, Jarrett said “when things go through litigation, we leave it to the Justice Department.”
“But I will say obviously the president believes that we should not discriminate. Period,” Jarrett said. “Our society is better when we’re inclusive and we recognize that we should be treating everybody equally.”
Asked why the Justice Department hasn’t made the formal assertion that anti-gay discrimination is prohibited under laws barring sex discrimination, Jarrett said, “You’ll have to put that question to the Justice Department. I can’t speak for them.” For years, the Justice Department has had no comment in response to the Washington Blade’s requests to comment on whether the sex provision in Title VII bars anti-gay bias.
‘You have to be vigilant’
After leaving the White House, Jarrett said her first priority is “going to sleep,” then figuring out plans for the future. Whatever the next days hold, Jarrett said she’ll “always speak out about the importance of equality.”
“As the president has said quite often lately, he now will assume the most important office of all — and that’s the office of citizen,” Jarrett said. “And it’s one that I now have, and so for the rest of my life, I think part of our responsibility as citizens is to fight for everyone to be treated the same.”
As for whether Obama will continue to be an LGBT advocate after leaving office, Jarrett said the LGBT community hasn’t seen the last of him.
“Not only will he advocate for equality, but he will encourage other Americans to get involved and join that important effort because our society is only as good as we make it,” she said.
What is the Obama administration’s message to members of the LGBT community who fear a Trump presidency? For Jarrett, the plan is simple: “Be brave, be vigilant and continue to speak out.”
Jarrett drew on Obama’s 2012 endorsement of marriage equality in an interview with Robin Roberts after years of evolution as an example of why personal stories can be effective.
“The president when he talked to Robin Roberts about his evolution on marriage equality told a story about his daughters who have friends whose parents are gay and his daughters couldn’t see any difference in why their friends’ parents would be treated any differently than their own parents, and he didn’t have an answer to that,” Jarrett said. “And so, the answer is, there should be no difference.”
With an uncertain time ahead, Jarrett said those are exactly the kinds of stories that can be effective because “if we continue to tell those stories, it helps people put themselves in the shoes of someone else.”
“And it is through that exercise that I think we make our best progress because it’s a change in society, not just simply a change in laws,” Jarrett concluded. “And when society is moving in a direction with momentum, it’s very hard to turn it back, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be vigilant. You have to be vigilant.”