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Obama vs. Biden: No easy task comparing the two on LGBTQ records

One president moved with caution, the other with speed

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Joe Biden, Barack Obama, White House, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

More than seven months into his administration, President Biden has quickly gained a reputation for being a champion for the LGBTQ community — but don’t ask whether that LGBTQ record is superior to his predecessor Barack Obama’s without expecting a fight.

Among the LGBTQ initiatives marking Biden’s tenure within a few months: Undoing the transgender military ban; ordering federal agencies to implement a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against anti-LGBTQ discrimination to the fullest extent possible; and integrating LGBTQ human rights into his foreign policy vision. When Obama was in office, policies along those lines for the LGBTQ community were more spanned out and took an entire eight years to implement.

Take, for example, transgender military service. Biden through an executive order within the first week of his administration reversed Trump’s policy-by-tweet banning transgender people from serving in the U.S. armed forces “in any capacity.” During the time of President Obama, who took office when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for openly gay service members was still law of the land, it took until the last six months before the end of his second term to lift older regulations similarly against transgender service.

Matt Hill, a White House spokesperson, wasn’t shy about ticking off each of these achievements when asked about the comparison between Obama and Biden on LGBTQ issues, but didn’t discount the work of the earlier president.

“President Biden is proud of the work accomplished alongside President Obama to advance LGBTQ+ equality from championing marriage equality, enabling LGBTQ+ Americans to serve openly in the military, combatting and preventing discrimination and more,” Hill said. “The Obama-Biden administration made historic progress for LGBTQ+ people at home and abroad, and the Biden-Harris administration is proud to continue making historic progress in the march toward full equality.”

If the chorus from the Lily Allen song “Not Fair” is coming to you in terms of comparing Biden to Obama on LGBTQ issues, that response would be justified. Trying to reach a definite conclusion about who was better is complicated simply because of different times.

Obama came into office when LGBTQ rights were unpopular compared to today and no president ever before had billed themselves fully as an ally the LGBTQ community. Not long ago, President George W. Bush scored political points and possibly won re-election as the war in Iraq turned into a fiasco by making a U.S. constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage a centerpiece of his campaign.

Mara Keisling, who as former executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality advocated for LGBTQ issues in both the Obama and Biden administrations, said “it is that way” Biden’s achievements have been more rapid and Obama’s more spread out over eight years, but added comparing the two is “apples and oranges.”

“We were in a very different place in 2009,” Keisling said. “There had never been a federal government administration that did trans policy before, and so they had to go about it more slowly or they had to figure out how to do it. Second, there weren’t there weren’t a lot of experienced advocates in the LGBT movement. There were really very few people who had done any administrative advocacy in 2009, and now we’re starting this administration with 50 or 60 experienced advocates who got right to it.”

Keisling said the preceding Trump administration, with all its anti-LGBTQ rollbacks, was ironically helpful in getting Biden started because “Donald Trump accidentally left the whole blueprint for what to do, which is just fix a lot of the things he broke.”

The difference in times is key to understanding why to bother comparing Obama and Biden on LGBTQ issues in the first place when they’re both generally regarded of supporters of LGBTQ people. It’s more a way to reflect on changing times, recognizing moving quickly on LGBTQ issues was more difficult 12 years ago than it is now.

Nonetheless, despite the Obama years being a different epoch, LGBTQ rights advocates at the start of his administration were outright hostile to Obama for not moving more quickly to push the nation forward, particularly on holding out on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal until two years in office. An initial legal brief defending the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in court, which compared same-sex relationships to underage and ancestral marriages, had LGBTQ people up in arms against a president they worked hard to elect.

The gay blogosphere, in its heyday at the end of the 2000s, skewered White House press secretaries Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney for inartful answers on Obama’s commitment to LGBTQ issues. Liberal bloggers such as John Aravosis at AMERICAblog, Pam Spaulding at Pam’s House Blend and Andy Towle at Towleroad had anti-Obama content alongside posts against Republicans.

Aravosis, in response to an email inquiry from the Blade, said making comparisons of Obama and Biden at this point in their presidencies is difficult given the different nature of the times.

“It’s always hard to compare 2008 and 2021,” Aravosis said. “They were different eras, with different demands. The three big issues for Obama were ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ DOMA and marriage equality. And we got him on board all three of those, with a little cajoling — DADT they delayed action on, DOMA they were defending in court, and marriage took until 2012 to get Obama on board. But eventually he did, on all those issues.”

Aravosis conceded at this time Biden comparatively has made “a ton of small to medium accomplishments early on,” and cited the confirmation of Pete Buttigieg as the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary as one of “a few big ones.”

Even during the Obama years, Biden was credited with moving Obama forward, famously speaking out in favor of same-sex couples getting married on “Meet the Press” as Obama’s “evolution” on the issue was still taking place. Obama would come out for marriage equality days later. Biden had also spoken out in favor of an LGBTQ non-discrimination order in the workplace for federal contractors before Obama made that happen.

Keisling said even though some of Obama’s early caution and missteps had angered LGBTQ advocates at the time, such as excluding transgender people from a 2009 presidential memorandum seeking to expand partner benefits for same-sex couples, they ended up proving beneficial.

“I don’t think any of us really understood what a momentous thing that was,” Keisling said. “But it was from that memo that they immediately realized that the federal government had to protect trans federal employees.”

In contrast to early consternation under Obama, seven months into the Biden administration nary an objection has been heard from LGBTQ leaders, save for a legal brief claiming a right to defend an exemption to LGBTQ non-discrimination law for religious schools that wasn’t even based on the merits. To the contrary, Biden has been lauded as the greatest supporter of LGBTQ people in the White House as his administration has rolled back Trump’s anti-LGBTQ initiatives, fully embracing LGBTQ people in his first months without the need for public cajoling from voices seeking equality.

One person who has worked both in and outside the White House on LGBTQ issues is Brian Bond, now executive director of PFLAG and the first LGBTQ White House liaison under Obama. Bond, however, would not agree to an interview for this article.

Despite the early consternation, the long view on Obama is different. By the time his administration was over after eight years, the LGBTQ community could look back on hate crimes legislation signed into law, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, marriage equality nationwide and transgender people being more visible and respected.

When the Washington Blade reached out to the Office of Barack and Michelle Obama for a comment on the comparison between Obama and Biden on LGBTQ issues, a spokesperson ticked off many of these achievements.

“We are so proud of President Obama’s record on LGBTQ issues, including repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ending the government’s legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, and signing historic hate crimes legislation, but he’s always said the presidency is a relay race and there’s nobody he’d rather have holding the baton right now than Joe Biden, especially when it comes to matters of equality,” the spokesperson said.

It was based on Obama’s overall record, especially his endorsement of same-sex marriage at a critical time in 2012 when the issue was at the polls in four states, that gay commentator Andrew Sullivan in 2012 dubbed him the “First Gay President” for a high-profile cover article in Newsweek.

Sullivan, who has declared the fight for gay rights now over and has been critical of continued efforts in the LGBTQ movement, said the comparison between Obama and Biden on LGBTQ issues is no contest.

“Neither president is responsible for gay equality. We are,” Sullivan wrote in an email to the Blade. “But there is no comparison. Marriage equality and openly gay troops under Obama dwarf anything Biden has done. The Bostock decision — the biggest advance in history for trans rights — happened under Trump.”

Obama, in an interview published in The Advocate last month, said he would “love my legacy to be overshadowed, because it would mean another president was doing even more to protect LGBTQ rights,” which he said was why he was pleased with Biden’s initiatives.

“Now, we obviously have more work to do,” Obama added. “We need to do even more to guarantee basic rights and protections for every American. My hope is that whatever success we had while I was president proves that progress is possible.” 

A continued one-up Obama has over Biden in terms of LGBTQ issues is major legislative achievements. For all the hurdles Biden has already cleared on LGBTQ issues compared to Obama, the Equality Act — the centerpiece of Biden’s campaign promise for LGBTQ people — continues to languish in the U.S. Senate and is all but dead.

By this time in the Obama years, the measure honoring gay teenager Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered, was on its way to the White House as an amendment to major defense spending authorization legislation in Congress. The Equality Act, on the other hand, hasn’t even gotten a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Aravosis said the lack of traction for the Equality Act in the Senate is a “similar dilemma” to the one supporters of gay rights faced in 2010 with hurdles in getting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed.

“We were extremely concerned that we’d lose the House in the 2010 midterm elections, so we wanted to get DADT repealed BEFORE that,” Aravosis said. “Same problem today. We need to get the Equality Act passed BEFORE the 2022 midterm elections, lest we lose the House or Senate.”

At the end of the day, however, unlike his criticism for Obama for not moving quickly on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, Aravosis said he doesn’t fault Biden for not getting the Equality Act on his desk.

“With a one-vote margin in the Senate, and the filibuster still in place, I’m not sure how we do that,” Aravosis said. “So, no, I don’t blame Biden for the current vote count being extremely difficult in the Senate.”

Biden last month signed a resolution designating the Orlando, Fla.-based Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed in a mass shooting, as a national monument, but that went through Congress unanimously and required no significant political power.

Keisling, when asked if the lack of major legislative achievements on LGBTQ issues detracts from Biden’s record, said the fault lies elsewhere.

“Nothing’s happening in Congress,” Keisling said. “What he has gotten done is kind of amazing — I mean in general not the LGBT stuff, because there really hasn’t been LGBT stuff — because Congress is currently broken. The Senate is broken anyway.”

When the Blade pointed out by this time in his administration Obama was on track to sign hate crimes legislation into law in October 2009 and asked what has changed, Keisling replied, “Talk to me about that in December.”

“I’m more optimistic than you are,” Keisling said. “I know the Blade has tried really hard to express pessimism. But we’re working it, it is still very much alive and there’s actual conversations going on between the right senators. I’m very hopeful still.”

The Human Rights Campaign, which has lobbied on LGBTQ issues in both the Obama and Biden administrations, didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney introduces bill to make monkeypox testing free

Health insurers would be required to cover costs

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has introduced legislation to make monkeypox testing free to the public. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), amid the ongoing monkeypox affecting gay and bisexual men, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House seeking to make testing for disease free to the public.

Maloney, one of seven openly gay members of Congress and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement the measure, called the No Cost for Monkeypox Testing Act, would testing amid the monkeypox outbreak would be accessible to all.

“It is critical that we eliminate cost as a barrier to testing for monkeypox to ensure we can identify cases and prevent further spread,” Maloney said. “This legislation takes the lessons we learned from past public health emergencies and protects those at risk of contracting monkeypox by making tests accessible to everyone.”

The legislation would require private health insurers as well as Medicare and Medicaid to cover the costs of monkeypox testing at no expense to the patients, either through deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance.

The bill introduction comes the week after the Biden administration declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency and the same it has issued new guidance to enhance to the accessing of existing vaccines doses amid criticism federal officials were too slow in distributing shots.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Centers for Disease Control seeking comment on the legislation. Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra said Tuesday the federal government has the capacity to conduct an estimated 80,000 tests each week.

Maloney has been representing New York’s 18th congressional district, but after redistricting is now seeking re-election in the 17th district. Amid controversy over a potential showdown between Maloney and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who’s Black, another openly gay member of Congress and the current representative of that district, Jones has since opted to run for re-election in the New York’s 10th congressional district. Maloney is now running unopposed in the 17th.

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Out Vermont state senator wins Democratic primary race

Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress

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Screenshot via Becca Balint for Congress

The Green Mountain State’s state Senate president pro tempore has won the Democratic nomination for the state’s at-large congressional seat, the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Becca Balin is running to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress if elected in November. Vermont is the only state that has never had a female member of its congressional delegation.

The VTDigger, a statewide news website, reported; “Balint, 53, is the first openly gay woman elected to the Vermont Senate and the first woman to serve as its president. The former middle school teacher and stay-at-home mother won her first political contest in a race for her southeastern Vermont Senate seat in 2014

She rose quickly through the ranks of the Democrat-controlled chamber, becoming majority leader in 2017, at the start of her second term. Four years later, in 2021, she was elected pro tem — the top position in the Senate.”

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Lindsey Graham: Same-sex marriage should be left to the states

Republican senator says issue a distraction from inflation

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Sen. Lindsey Graham said he still thinks the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, said Sunday he still thinks the issue of gay nuptials should be left to the states.

Graham made the remarks during an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash in a rare televised bipartisan debate with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) as the Senate was in the middle of voting on amendments for the Inflation Reduction Act.

When discussing the 6-3 conservative majority of the Supreme Court, Graham said consistent with the recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade justices could overturn other precedents, such as the 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in favor of same-sex marriage.

Asked point blank if he was saying it should be overturned, Graham said “no, I’m saying that I don’t think it’s going to be overturned.” Graham, however, had an infection his voice, suggesting same-sex marriage could be undone.

“Nor should it be?” asked Bash.

“Well, that would be up to the court,” he responded, then added: “I think states should decide the issue of marriage, and states should be decide the issue of abortion.”

When Bash brought up another case, Loving v. Virginia, the 1965 case that overturned states bans on interracial marriage, and asked if that should be revisited as well, Graham replied, “no.”

Graham quickly moved on to tamp down any expectation the would address the issue of same-sex marriage, saying fears the court would revisit the issue are unfounded and meant as a distraction from issues such as inflation.

“But if you’re going to ask me to have the federal government take over defining marriage, I’m going to say no,” Graham added.

Graham’s remarks are consistent with what he told the Washington Blade in 2015 when asked about same-sex marriage as the issue was being adjudicated by the Supreme Court. However, they contrast to his support for a Federal Marriage Amendment that was pending before Congress during the Bush administration and would have made a ban on same-sex marriage nationwide part of the U.S. Constitution. Graham was not asked about his views on now defunct idea of an amendment during the CNN interview.

h/t The Independent

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