President Obama deviated this week from the language considered acceptable for talking about gay people when he described the lives of same-sex couples as a “lifestyle choice” — but virtually no one cares.
The Washington Blade reached out to various LGBT groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force and GLAAD, to ask whether they objected to Obama’s use of the phrase. None of those groups responded to a request to comment on that language, which is widely considered unacceptable and offensive because it suggests that sexual orientation is a choice.
Obama also said he hopes the Supreme Court makes the “right decision” on pending litigation seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“I’m hopeful the Supreme Court comes to the right decision, but I will tell you, people’s hearts have opened up on this issue,” Obama said. “I think people know that treating folks unfairly, even if you disagree with their lifestyle choice, the fact of the matter is, they’re not bothering you. Let them live their lives, and under the law, they should be treated equally.”
Obama’s faux pas comes the same week that he made history by becoming the first president ever to say the words “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “transgender” in a State of the Union address.
The White House didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on whether Obama regrets using the phrase “lifestyle choice” in the interview. The White House also didn’t respond to clarify if Obama meant the “right decision” from the Supreme Court would be a 50-state ruling against all remaining state bans on same-sex marriage.
Richard Socarides, a gay New York-base Democratic activist who has taken Obama to task before on LGBT issues, said he doesn’t feel criticism of Obama is necessary here.
“I think he was no doubt speaking in short hand and I’m sure he knows that ‘lifestyle’ is not a good word choice in this context,” Socarides said. “I also think that given his record, even us purists can give him a pass on this one.”
John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, emphasized that Obama chose the words while speaking out in support of a favorable ruling on marriage from the Supreme Court for same-sex couples.
“In the grand scheme of things I’m far happier that President Obama is being our fierce advocate on marriage equality than I am upset about an anachronistic phrase,” Aravosis said. “I’m sure by now someone on staff has told him that the phrase isn’t used anymore. Considering the man’s now-stellar record on our issues, I’m happy to give a pass on this one.”
Aravosis added he also doesn’t take issue with LGBT groups remaining silent given Obama’s record to this point.
“Obama has done practically everything we’ve asked of him at this point,” Aravosis said. “He’s earned the right for us to give him the occasional pass on minor issues. And in the grand scheme, considering his record and the pro-gay context of the quote, it’s pretty minor.”
Obama has previously refuted the idea that being gay is a choice. According to CNN, in a town-hall style event in 2010 he told students, “I don’t think it’s a choice. I think people are born with a certain make-up.”
But we’ve been here before with Obama administration officials. In 2010, Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, issued an apology when she made virtually identical remarks. In an interview with the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capeheart, Jarrett said the parents of Justin Aaberg, a gay Minnesota teenager who killed himself, did a good job because they loved him and “supported his lifestyle choice.”
“I meant no disrespect to the LGBT community, and I apologize to any who have taken offense at my poor choice of words,” Jarrett said later. “Sexual orientation and gender identity are not a choice, and anyone who knows me and my work over the years knows that I am a firm believer and supporter in the rights of LGBT Americans.”
Moreover, LGBT rights groups have taken Republicans to task when GOP officials and political hopefuls have made similar comments. In 2011, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain, then the front-runner in the race to become the Republican presidential nominee, ignited a firestorm of controversy when he said in an interview on “The View” that being gay is a choice.
“Well, you show me the science that it’s not and I’ll be persuaded,” Cain said. “Right now it’s my opinion against the opinions of others who feel differently. That’s just a difference of opinions.”
At the time, then-Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese rebuked Cain for making remarks that were “frankly, jaw-dropping and certainly unbecoming of a presidential hopeful.”
Of course, Cain doesn’t nearly have the record that Obama has on LGBT issues. Weeks after making the comments on “The View,” Cain suggested he supports a U.S. constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage across the country.
David Badash, a New York-based advocate and editor of The New Civil Rights Movement, said he believes Obama, unlike others, knows being gay isn’t a choice despite his choice of words in the YouTube interview.
“President Obama has more than proven his support for the civil rights of LGBT people, so it was surprising — but not troubling — to hear him in an unscripted and casual interview use the phrase ‘lifestyle choice’ when speaking about same-sex marriage,” Badash said. “While those who do not support equality like to use that phrase as ‘evidence’ that people are not born LGBT, we know, and we know the president knows, it’s not a choice, any more than being born left-handed or with red-hair is.”
The exception to the lack of concern over Obama choice of words is gay Republicans, who say LGBT groups are treating Obama with a double-standard.
Ric Grenell, a gay Republican strategist who worked briefly on the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, said the silence among LGBT rights groups demonstrates they have a bias in favor of Democrats.
“If a Republican said being gay was a lifestyle choice, gay leaders in D.C. would be apoplectic from Dupont Circle to Capitol Hill,” Grenell said. “HRC and the other phony Democrat partisans posing as gay rights leaders are desperate to keep gay rights a partisan issue. Sadly, they do so at the expense of the movement and to the benefit their own careers.”
Grenell added he hopes the “conservative Roberts court agrees and ends this partisan debate,” referring to pending litigation seeking marriage equality before the court.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he anticipated a correction from the White House in the near future.
“Despite his sustained calls for equal rights for LGBT Americans, gaffes like this continue to make Obama’s pro-equality overtures seem like political pandering,” Angelo said. “Don’t be surprised to see Josh Earnest say the president ‘misspoke’ in the coming days.”
Obama has left Washington for the upcoming week to visit India and Saudi Arabia to pay his respects to the departed King Abdullah. If the White House were to issue a correction, it would have to be on the gaggle during the trip or the next on-camera White House news briefing upon Obama’s return.