After eight years of President Obama, there’s no denying advancements on LGBT rights have been anything short of revolutionary.
Reviewing the timeline we put together for Obama on LGBT issues, I can say it just doesn’t do the past eight years justice. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts because they reflect a greater societal change and got us out of a deep hole of inequality dug by George W. Bush’s anti-gay administration and Bill Clinton signing into law the Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
This progress on LGBT rights under Obama didn’t just happen. It followed a lot of pressure from LGBT activists seeking equality — and as the Washington Blade’s chief political and White House reporter, I played my role in seeking responses to the calls for action from the White House press secretary during the daily briefing.
During Obama’s first year in office, LGBT rights activists were relentless in their calls on Obama to act on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which they said was taking too long to happen, and I was among those bringing those calls to the attention of Obama’s first press secretary Robert Gibbs.
It took Obama until the State of the Union address at the start of his second year in office to declare he would act. The plan ended up a being a nearly year-long massive study at the Pentagon on repeal that would conclude in the lame duck of session of Congress. Obama would sign “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, but whether he actually planned for legislative action to end the military’s gay ban during a brief window after Election Day and before Republicans took control of the U.S. House remains in question.
Similarly, Obama didn’t come into the White House believing gay people should enjoy the fundamental right to marry. The president only espoused that belief during the final year of his first term in 2012. By that time, I had a number of exchanges with Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney that were embarrassing for the administration because they exposed the president’s lack of support for marriage equality as he professed to support LGBT rights.
The period of questioning in the White House briefing room on whether Obama would sign an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT workplace discrimination was even longer. I first queried Jay Carney about the potential order in 2011, through the time when the administration said it wouldn’t happen in 2012 and into Josh Earnest’s tenure in 2014 when Obama finally signed the directive.
In fact, throughout the president’s first term in office, there was a great deal of skepticism about whether he would make good on his pledge to be an LGBT ally. It’s hard to see now with so much public support for LGBT rights, but even just a few years ago during the early years of the Obama administration, society wasn’t yet where it is today. I think the Obama administration was wary about being too public in championing LGBT rights when it wanted to stay in power and accomplish other things.
But I can pinpoint an exact moment when that changed: Obama’s remarks during his second inauguration speech in 2013 in which he compared the Stonewall riots to Selma and declared “our journey is not compete until gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
The significance of those words cannot be overstated. First, no LGBT advocate publicly called on the president to include a commitment to LGBT rights in his speech. Second, the impact of the widely watched speech was far-reaching and gave a clear signal LGBT rights would be a top, visible commitment for Obama during his second term.
After that moment, there was a palpable change in the LGBT movement’s view of Obama. The sense we needed to push to make to him see us and advance our equality faded substantially and his image as an LGBT rights champion we know today started to take shape.
That said, activism still continued, most significantly in the form of pushing Obama to green light a Justice Department brief against California’s Proposition 8 and to sign the LGBT non-discrimination executive order (both requests were granted). But the sense Obama was an LGBT rights champion was so pervasive that when he inadvertently referred to being a gay as a “lifestyle choice” in 2015 during a YouTube interview, the remarks barely registered in the LGBT community.
I could add a personal gripe that over the course of eight years, Obama never granted the Washington Blade an interview, nor did he even take a question from me any of his news conferences even though I made sure I attended just about all of them in case I had the opportunity. But as much as that disappoints me, I don’t think you’ll hear complaints in the LGBT community about the Washington Blade’s lack of access given the litany of LGBT accomplishments under the Obama presidency.
In the coming weeks, I’m sure you’ll hear the refrain, “Thanks, Obama” in reference to the advancements of LGBT rights under his administration. Just remember LGBT people should also thank themselves for demanding equality and pushing Obama to be the champion of LGBT rights that will endure as part of his legacy.
Chris Johnson is the Blade’s White House reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.