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.”