It’s hard to believe that in a few days the Obama presidency will come to an end. Like many Americans, I have spent the past few months reflecting on the Obama presidency and his legacy particularly from my perspective as a gay black man. President Obama’s election inspired me to become more involved in the Democratic National Committee and led to my subsequent election as chair of the LGBTQ Caucus.
I must confess that Barack Hussein Obama was not my first choice for the Democratic nomination in 2008. I just could not believe that an unknown first-term senator from Illinois with a Muslim sounding name and mixed race could be elected president of the United States. Then Obama started to win primaries in the late winter and early spring of 2008, then he surged ahead of Hillary Clinton and by June it was all over. I was going to vote for the eventual Democratic nominee because I am a Democrat but I was not excited about Obama because I didn’t know him and didn’t think he could win.
I attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, waited hours in the blazing sun to hear Obama’s acceptance speech. I could not believe my ears when I heard him say, “I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.” This was the first time I had ever heard a presidential candidate speak so firmly in favor of LGBT rights. I left Denver energized and worked hard for his election. And the man with the funny sounding name was elected our president.
There were many in the LGBT community who felt that during the first six months of his administration, Obama was moving too slowly on LGBT issues, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and submitting hate crimes legislation to Congress. In fact, more than a few LGBT leaders boycotted the DNC LGBT Gala held in Washington, D.C., in June 2008. In hindsight, allowing time for Obama to deal with the banking crisis, auto industry and fighting two wars was worth the wait. Who knew that so much progress on LGBT issues would be made under President Obama’s leadership — the passing of the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid, which has provided insurance to so many in LGBT community; passing hate crimes legislation named for Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.; banning discrimination against LGBT people by federal contractors; ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; the appointment of gay ambassadors; lifting the ban on transgender military service and the list of pro-LGBT policy changes goes on and on.
However, one of the greatest impacts that President Obama had on the LGBT community was not legislative or policy — it was when he voiced support for same-sex marriage in 2012. Conversations about same-sex marriage took place at dinner tables, living rooms and barber shops around the nation. Even my 76-year-old Baptist minister father came around and stated that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. Public opinion immediately started shifting toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, which culminated in the approval of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.
President John F. Kennedy once said that history will be the final judge of our deeds. There are many people who believe that the Trump administration and his Republican-controlled Congress will undo all of President Obama’s LGBT legislative and policy changes thus tarnishing his legacy. I would venture to say that while some LGBT legislative and policy changes will be undone, Obama will never be forgotten for his courage in standing for and with our community, and history will judge him worthy.
Earl Fowlkes is chair of the DNC’s LGBTQ Caucus and president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.