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1 year later: A look back at Obama’s support for marriage

Observers say announcement helped lead to success at the ballot

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Barack Obama, White House, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade
Barack Obama, White House, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade, Robin Roberts

President Obama comes out for marriage equality in an ABC News interview (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Amid cheers over recent marriage equality victories in Rhode Island and Delaware, supporters of same-sex marriage are marking the one-year anniversary of President Obama coming out for marriage equality, calling it a milestone that helped lead to the successes of the past year.

It was a year ago, on May 9, 2012, when Obama declared in an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts that he had grown to support same-sex marriage.

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama said.

The decision, Obama said, came as the result of speaking with gay members of the armed forces during the debate on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and realizing they should have equal access to the institution of marriage.

But the president was careful to limit the scope of his support. Obama said he was hesitant to make an announcement in favor of marriage equality because he “didn’t want to nationalize the issue” and maintained that he believes the marriage issue remains one best left to the states.

And the announcement wasn’t spontaneous. The president endorsed same-sex marriage after saying for 19 months he was in a state of evolution on the issue. Obama finally made the announcement just three days after Vice President Joseph Biden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’s “absolutely comfortable” with married same-sex couples having the “same exact rights” as others.

Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality was seen as a watershed moment because no sitting U.S. president had ever come out for marriage equality and supporters of same-sex marriage hoped his words would influence others to join the president in completing their evolution on the issue.

Arguably, that happened. In the days after the announcement, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of black Americans, 59 percent, had also come to support same-sex marriage — up 18 points after the president’s announcement.

Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a political scientist at the City University of New York, identified this growth in support of marriage equality among black Americans as one of the most immediate consequences of Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality.

“Polling data show a statistically significant increase in support for same-sex marriage among black respondents for the periods immediately before and after Obama’s announcement,” Pinello said. “In turn, this increased support probably was crucial in a state with a large African-American-voter contingent like Maryland, which narrowly approved of gay nuptials last November.”

The growth in support isn’t limited to black Americans. Another widely noticed poll in March from Washington Post-ABC News found that 58 percent of the American public had come to support same-sex marriage.

And in the wake of the president’s announcement, substantive changes were seen in favor of marriage equality throughout the country. For the first time ever, the Democratic Party platform in 2012 endorsed marriage equality. In another first, voters legalized same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington State at the ballot in November, while voters in Minnesota rejected a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In the past week, Rhode Island and Delaware became the latest to join other states in legalizing marriage equality.

Moreover, a bevy of U.S. senators have followed in Obama’s tracks by coming out for same-sex marriage. The ones who have come out since the beginning of this year include Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo,), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) as well as Republicans Rob Portman (Ohio) and Mark Kirk (Ill.). Now all but three members of the Democratic caucus — Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — back marriage equality.

Pinello said Obama articulating his views a year ago in favor of marriage equality helped set the tone for the Democratic Party that has enabled other lawmakers to come out for same-sex marriage.

“The president set a standard for the Democratic Party, encouraging its other officeholders to emulate his leadership on the issue,” Pinello said. “For example, I doubt that there would be nearly unanimous support for marriage equality among Democrats in the U.S. Senate today without Obama’s action a year ago.”

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reflected on the president’s current views on marriage equality when asked by Sirius XM Radio’s Jared Rizzi if Obama still thinks that state-by-state is the best way to address the issue in the wake of Delaware becoming the 11th state with same-sex marriage on the books.

“There has been enormous progress made,” Carney said. “I think that the facts, as you just recited them, demonstrate the progress made. The president’s views are known. He’s expressed them. Our views on issues like DOMA and Prop 8 have been expressed in legal filings, so I’ll point you to those. For him, it’s a fundamental issue of equal rights, and that’s why he has taken the position that he has taken. But for our legal approach to these issues, I would refer you to the Department of Justice.”

But Obama hit another milestone on Election Day six months after his announcement by winning re-election to the White House despite predictions that coming out for marriage equality would jeopardize his re-election prospects. Although he didn’t win as he did in 2008 North Carolina, a state with a significant evangelical population, Obama walloped Mitt Romney in the electoral college by taking 332 votes in the Electoral College compared to Romney’s 206.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama’s victory after coming out for marriage equality is having a major impact as LGBT advocates push more states to legalize same-sex marriage.

“The president proved that elected officials — at the highest of levels — could be for marriage, campaign on it and be reelected, in fact, based on their support,” Sainz said. “Without that shining example, we may not have the number of senators we do today or have been able to recruit the legislators we need to support marriage in Rhode Island and Delaware and soon in Minnesota and Illinois.”

Obama’s support for marriage equality hasn’t been limited to his words in that May interview. Days before the election, newspapers in Maryland, Maine and Washington State published statements from his campaign urging voters in those states to legalize marriage equality at the ballot. After Obama endorsed legislation in favor of marriage equality in Illinois, Organizing for Action, the successor organization to the Obama campaign, sent out action alerts to its members in the state calling on them to help pass the marriage equality legislation.

Most notably, Obama raised the bar on his position in favor of same-sex marriage by having his Justice Department file a friend-of-the-court brief in the pending lawsuit before the Supreme Court challenging California’s Proposition 8. That brief argued the ban on same-sex marriage in California was unconstitutional and suggested similar bans in other states were unconstitutional.

Even before Obama endorsed marriage equality, his administration had already stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court in addition to aiding litigation by filing briefs and arguing against the law in oral arguments.

John Aravosis, who’s gay and editor of AMERICAblog, said Obama has done a “pretty good job” in acting on his position in favor of marriage equality, but added he could do more — particularly in advocating for immigration reform that would enable gay Americans to sponsor foreign spouses for residency within the country.

“If we sort of think through the things that we wanted him to do in the last year on marriage, he’s done a lot of them,” Aravosis said. “The only one I can think of [him not doing] is putting his foot down on immigration reform and saying, ‘This shall not pass if you discriminate against gays.’ It’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head where he needs to do a better job in terms of putting his foot down.”

Aravosis added to some degree the onus is on the LGBT community in terms of “coming up with the list of pro-marriage needs to do” because “rabble-rousing” on the legal briefs in the Prop 8 case eventually led the administration to file them.

It remains to be seen what impact the president’s words will have in future battles over marriage equality. Will lawmakers in Minnesota and Illinois heed Obama’s words as they consider whether to become the 12th and 13th states to legalize same-sex marriage? Will the U.S. Supreme Court draw upon President Obama’s words in rulings against the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8?

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said he expects Obama’s words from a year ago to continue to have an impact in anticipation of the Supreme Court decision and future legislative wins.

“The president’s strong support for the freedom to marry adds to the case we are making in the Supreme Court, signaling to the justices that America is ready for the freedom to marry and they can do the right thing knowing that not only will history vindicate them, but the public will embrace a right ruling,” Wolfson said. “And we’ve already seen how the president’s leadership — and resonant explanation of how he changed his mind  — adds to the momentum in state battles, ongoing and to come.”

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Anticipation builds amid delay: Will Biden name LGBTQ ambassadors?

United States has never had lesbian woman, trans person as envoy

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Biden administration, gay news, Washington Blade

More than 100 days into his presidency, President Biden has yet to name picks for a multitude of ambassadorial positions in a delay unusual for a presidency at this stage, raising questions about whether he’ll miss an opportunity to exhibit America’s LGBTQ community overseas through the appointment of the first-ever lesbian and transgender person as ambassadors.

Many of these ambassadorial vacancies, which complement the diplomatic corps of the U.S. government to serve as a representation of American diversity overseas, are in key positions. Nearly 90 ambassadorial positions, including sought-after posts in Israel, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy and China, remain vacant according to an April article in USA Today.

The delay in ambassadorial appointments appears to come from pressure on Biden to refrain from the traditional practice of naming donors who bundled for his presidential campaign to the prestigious posts as opposed to foreign policy experts. Biden declined during his campaign to commit to refusing to reward donors with ambassadorial appointments, but the issue has taken hold in progressive circles.

On the other hand, many donors and bundlers for Biden’s presidential campaign were LGBTQ people, who would reasonably expect an ambassadorial appointment as a reward for helping get Biden to the White House.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, under questioning from the Washington Blade on Tuesday on whether Biden is missing an opportunity to name lesbian and transgender ambassadors in historic firsts, urged patience.

“Given we haven’t named many ambassadors quite yet — and we hope to soon; stay tuned — certainly the president looks to ensuring that the people representing him, not just in the United States, but around the world, represent the diversity of the country, and that certainly includes people who are LGBTQ, members of the transgender community,” Psaki said.

Asked to clarify her definition of “soon” in this context — whether it means days, weeks, or months — Psaki declined to provide a more definite timeline.

“I think it depends on when the president makes some decisions,” Psaki said. “And he’ll continue to consider a range of options for a lot of the positions that are out there and still remain vacant.”

At the same time, Psaki made a point to commend the work of Foreign Service officers at the State Department with whom Biden has sought to restore trust after years of scorn from former President Trump.

“I will say, having served at the State Department for a couple of years, there are incredible career service employees who are serving in these embassies around the world who are representing the United States and our values.” Psaki said. “That continues to be the case, but, of course, we’re eager to have ambassadors in place and confirmed to represent the president and the vice president and the United States.”

The appointment of members of the LGBTQ community to ambassadorships has a significant place in the movement’s history. In 1998, Jim Hormel became the first openly gay person to serve as U.S. ambassador after being named U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. But the victory came after a struggle when anti-gay senators, including the late Jesse Helms, refused to confirm Hormel explicitly because he’s gay. President Clint0n ended up appointing Hormel as an ambassador through a recess appointment, which averted the need for Senate confirmation.

Presidents regardless of party have achieved historic firsts with the appointment of openly gay men as ambassadors. Michael Guest in the George W. Bush administration was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Romania, making him the first openly gay person to obtain Senate confirmation for an ambassadorship. Former President Obama over the course of two terms appointed a record seven openly gay men as ambassadors, including John Berry as U.S. ambassador to Australia and Daniel Baer as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.

Richard Grenell, named by President Trump as U.S. ambassador to Germany, currently has the distinction of being the openly gay person with the most prestigious ambassadorial appointment. Consistent with his reputation as a firebrand on social media, Grenell hit Germany hard as ambassador to compel the G-5 country to meet its military spending obligations as a NATO partner. Grenell has something to show for his efforts: The country began to spend closer to 2 percent of its GDP on defense.

And yet for all these appointments, no president has ever named an open lesbian or trans woman for a position as U.S. ambassador, an oversight that stands out after the rapid progress on LGBTQ rights in recent years. At a time when transgender rights are in focus amid anti-trans attacks in state legislatures, the appointment of an openly transgender ambassador would also send a signal of solidarity with the transgender community.

There’s no indication Biden won’t appoint an LGBTQ person for a position as U.S. ambassador, which could be an easy achievement from him with the LGBTQ community, but the delay raises questions on whether or not they will happen, in addition to keeping the diplomatic corps from being fully staffed and functional.

Moreover, the position of LGBTQ international liaison at the State Department, a position Biden campaigned on filling after Trump let the position remain vacant, remains unfilled. During the Obama years, Randy Berry served in that role and travelled internationally to work with LGBTQ groups overseas and demonstrate U.S. solidarity with them.

It’s unclear why the international LGBTQ liaison position continues to remain vacant within the Biden administration. A State Department spokesperson referred the Blade on Wednesday back to the White House on potential LGBTQ ambassadorial appointments or the international LGBTQ liaison role.

To be sure, Biden has made several key LGBTQ appointments in the limited time in his presidency. Among them are Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, making him the first-ever openly gay person to win Senate confirmation for a Cabinet-level role, and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health, which made her the first openly transgender person to win Senate confirmation for any presidential appointment.

In the past few weeks alone, Biden has signaled he’d name openly lesbian and transgender people to high-ranking civilian positions at the Defense Department. Brenda Sue Fulton, a lesbian activist who fought to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the transgender military ban, got the nod as assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, while Shawn Skelly, a transgender national security expert who served in the Air Force for 20 years as a Naval Flight Officer, obtained the nod to become assistant secretary of defense for readiness. Meanwhile, Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Iraq war veteran who twice ran to represent Texas’ 23rd congressional district, was nominated to become Air Force under secretary.

Even the State Department itself has a person from the LGBTQ community serving as its public face. Ned Price, who conducts daily briefings with the media as State Department spokesperson, is the first openly gay person to serve in that prominent position.

The LGBTQ Victory Institute, which at the start of the Biden administration had signaled the appointment of a lesbian, transgender person and LGBTQ person of color as U.S. ambassadors were among its goals, expressed confidence Biden would name these appointments in due time.

“President Biden will roll out his picks for ambassadorships over the next few months and it presents an incredible opportunity to choose diverse and groundbreaking LGBTQ nominees,” said Ruben Gonzales, executive director of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. “As President Biden has already made history with the number of LGBTQ women and transgender people he has nominated for Senate-confirmed positions, we predict this commitment to LGBTQ diversity will continue when ambassadors are nominated. The impact of our first LGBTQ women ambassadors, first LGBTQ ambassadors of color and first trans ambassadors would be enormous – an impact not lost on the Biden administration.”

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White House: Biden to use bully pulpit to back transgender youth

Biden made commitment to transgender youth in speech to Congress

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday President Biden will fulfill the pledge he made in his speech to Congress to have the backs of transgender youth by using the bully pulpit, deferring to the U.S. Justice Department on potential legal action against attacks from state legislatures.

Psaki made the remarks under questioning from the Washington Blade in the aftermath of Biden’s speech last week before a joint session to Congress, when he called on lawmakers to pass the Equality Act and told transgender youth he’d have their back amid a flurry of anti-transgender in state legislatures.

“Well, certainly the president has put in place – has signed executive orders, he’s also used the power of the bully pulpit and his presidency to convey that transgender rights are human rights, and that is the view and belief of his administration and how he expects policies to be implemented,” Psaki said.

Many of the state measures are aimed at restricting transgender youth’s access to school sports by prohibiting biological boys from playing in girls’ events, essentially transgender girls from participation. Other measures prohibit transition-related health care. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday signed legislation requiring parental notification for LGBTQ-inclusive school curricula.

Psaki specifically addressed measures that would prohibit transgender youth from playing sports in her remarks on how Biden would follow-up on his pledge.

“That includes ensuring that transgender youth have the opportunity to play sports and to be treated equally in states across the country, so he will look to members of his administration to implement what his view and what his value is as president,” Psaki said.

Asked in a follow-up if she would rule out legal action against states as part of that effort, Psaki deferred entirely to the Justice Department.

“I will leave that to the Department of Justice,” Psaki said.

The Justice Department for weeks hasn’t respond to multiple requests to comment on whether it will tale legal action against the measures against transgender youth, which critics say amount to unlawful sex discrimination under the law.

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Biden calls for passage of Equality Act in speech to Congress

LGBTQ legislation at an impasse as first 100 days approaches

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President Biden, delivering his first joint speech before Congress on the eve of his 100th day of his presidency, urged Congress to pass the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ people against discrimination, signaling support for transgender youth amid a flurry of attacks in state legislatures.

“I also hope Congress will get to my desk the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ Americans,” Biden said. “To all transgender Americans watching at hone, especially young people who are so brave: I want you to know your president has your back.”

Although the U.S. House has acted to pass the Equality Act, the legislation has remained at an impasse in the U.S. Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. Biden had pledged during his presidential campaign to sign the Equality Act within his first 100 days in office, but has fallen short of that goal upon that milestone.

It remains to be seen whether Biden in his joint speech before Congress will create new traction for the Equality Act. In 2010, when former President Obama brought up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in his State of the Union speech, it made waves a led to Congress passing legislation that year during the lame duck session.

Biden included the Equality Act in a speech where he articulated other agenda items, including passage of health care, corporate tax increases and the DREAM Act. Seated behind Biden were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Kamala Harris, marking the first time in history two women seated behind a U.S. president in a speech before a joint of Congress.

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