On Jan. 20, President Barack Obama will leave office with an unprecedented record on LGBT rights. Thanks to his leadership, and that of Vice President Joe Biden and other allies in the federal workforce, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is a thing of the past, federally funded hospitals can’t turn away LGBT patients and their loved ones, and schools that receive federal funding must ensure transgender students can go to class free from discrimination.
Yet President Obama’s most important legacy may be a less tangible one. Under his leadership, LGBT equality has moved from being a niche issue to an integral part of the progressive movement.
Today, President Obama is one of my community’s fiercest allies. But in 2007, candidate Obama was less committed to our cause, voicing support for secular civil unions but not yet publicly supporting marriage equality. After his inauguration, however, the president showed a willingness to listen to LGBT advocates — and to evolve.
Although President Obama did not immediately embrace our movement’s most visible goal, marriage equality, advocates saw in him an opportunity to advance equality in other major policy domains such as hate crimes, immigration, education, and healthcare. That’s why, during the same year Obama accepted the party’s nomination in Denver, I helped launch the LGBT Research and Communications Project at my organization, the Center for American Progress. Our goal was to show policymakers and the public that LGBT equality is part and parcel of a progressive agenda, and that the fight for progressive policies — from immigration reform to affordable healthcare and beyond — would be incomplete if LGBT people were left behind.
As president, Obama embraced that reality and acted on it, through word and deed. One critical advancement was making healthcare access for LGBT Americans a key feature of the Affordable Care Act. Before the ACA passed, insurers could legally deny transgender people coverage for hormone therapy or refuse to cover anyone who was HIV+, since HIV was considered a preexisting condition. The Affordable Care Act also introduced crucial nondiscrimination protections banning anti-LGBT discrimination in health care and health insurance, saving LGBT lives. Because of the Affordable Care Act, the un-insurance rate among low- and middle-income LGBT adults fell by 23 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone.
There are numerous other ways in which President Obama and his administration made LGBT rights a core part of the progressive mission. Federal agencies took unprecedented action to support homeless LGBT youth, protect transgender workers from employment discrimination, and prohibit banks from denying mortgages to same-sex couples, among other achievements. His was an administration that led by example.
Ultimately, Obama led on marriage equality too, becoming the first U.S. president in history to support same-sex marriage in 2012. President Obama lived out his evolution on marriage equality in public — and along the way, he helped lead the progressive movement toward fully embracing LGBT rights. The Democratic Party shed its tepid support of civil unions and included nationwide marriage equality in its 2012 platform. Moreover, today, a majority of voters in both parties support a federal law providing comprehensive nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people nationwide.
Alarmingly, President-elect Donald Trump threatens to undo much of this legacy. He has put forth virulently anti-equality cabinet nominees and vowed to sign legislation that would sanction employment and housing discrimination. He ran on repealing the ACA, returning us to a time when LGBT and HIV+ people could legally be denied life-saving healthcare — and congressional Republicans have made it clear that rolling back this coverage is one of their first priorities.
But thanks to President Obama, the Trump administration is about to learn that rolling back LGBT rights won’t be easy. President Obama showed the progressive movement, and the nation, that there is no justice and equality without LGBT rights. As a progressive coalition, we must honor his legacy by fighting to preserve it.
Winnie Stachelberg is executive vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress.