In the final news conference of his presidency on Wednesday, President Obama attributed massive gains in LGBT rights to the work of “individual activists” he says his administration helped along.
Obama made the remarks in response to a question from the Washington Blade on the role of LGBT achievements in his legacy compared to other accomplishments, marking the first time a U.S. president called on an LGBT publication during a news conference.
“I could not be prouder of the transformation that’s taken place in our society just in the last decade,” Obama said. “And, I’ve said before, I think we made some useful contributions to it, but the primary heroes in this stage of our growth as a democracy and a society are all the individual activists and sons and daughters and couples who courageously said, this is who I am and I’m proud of it.”
Obama said the work of activists “opened people’s minds and opened their hearts, and, eventually, laws caught up.” Over the course of eight years, Obama signed into law hate crimes protections legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in addition to supporting the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in favor of same-sex marriage and against the Defense of Marriage Act.
“I don’t think any of that would have happened without the activism, in some cases loud and noisy, but in some cases just quiet and very personal,” Obama added. “And I think that what we did as an administration was to help the society to move in a better direction, but to do so in a way that didn’t create an enormous backlash and was systematic and respectful of the fact, you know, in some cases these issues were controversial.”
As an example of the methodic work in advancing LGBT rights, Obama pointed to his efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which he said included working with the military service chiefs and ensuring repeal wouldn’t have an adverse impact on the armed forces.
“I am proud of that, but again, none of that would have happened without this incredible transformation that was happening in society out there,” Obama said.
Obama recalled giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ellen DeGeneres, whom he credited with driving societal acceptance of LGBT people by coming out as a lesbian.
“I think somebody that kind and likable, projecting into, you know, living rooms around the country,” Obama said. “You know, that changed attitudes. And that wasn’t easy to do for her. And that’s just one small example of what was happening in countless communities all across the country because American society has changed.”
Referencing the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who has taken anti-LGBT views over the course of his campaign, Obama said he doesn’t think LGBT progress “is something that will be reversible.”
“The attitudes of young people, in particular, have changed,” Obama said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be some fights that are important, legal issues, issues surrounding transgender persons. There’s still going to be some battles that need to take place.”
Obama called on the Blade during his final news conference as the Trump team has openly suggested removing the press corps from the White House. In what some viewed as a statement about press freedom and access, others who had the opportunity to ask questions included White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason, Fox News, Univision and Al-Arabiya.
“So America needs you and our democracy needs you,” Obama said of the press. “We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress. And so my hope is is that you will continue with the same tenacity that you showed us, to do the hard work of getting to the bottom of stories and getting them right and to push those of us in power to be the best version of ourselves and to push this country to be the best version of itself.”