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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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Biden recognizes 10th anniversary of end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Pete Buttigieg, Gina Ortiz Jones named in White House statement

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President Biden recognized in a statement on Monday the tenth anniversary of the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that once discharged service members from the military for being openly gay or bisexual.

“Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members,” Biden said. “The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which formally barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from openly serving, helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all.”

Biden recognized high-profile openly gay appointees in his administrations who are also veterans, naming Air Force Under Secretary Gina Ortiz Jones and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Biden also names Shawn Skelly, assistant secretary of defense for readiness, who would have been discharged from the military under President Trump’s transgender military ban.

“On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ service members and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation,” Biden said. “We must honor their sacrifice by continuing the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ people, including by finally passing the Equality Act and living up to our highest values of justice and equality for all.”

Technically speaking, the anniversary of Obama signing repeal legislation was in December. Today is the anniversary of defense officials certifying the military is ready, which put an end to the policy.

Read Biden’s full statement below:

Statement by President Joe Biden on the Tenth Anniversary of the Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which formally barred gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from openly serving, helped move our nation closer to its foundational promise of equality, dignity, and opportunity for all. It was the right thing to do. And, it showed once again that America is at its best when we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.

Despite serving with extraordinary honor and courage throughout our history, more than 100,000 American service members have been discharged because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—including some 14,000 under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Many of these veterans received what are known as “other than honorable” discharges, excluding them and their families from the vitally important services and benefits they had sacrificed so much to earn.

As a U.S. Senator, I supported allowing service members to serve openly, and as Vice President, I was proud to champion the repeal of this policy and to stand beside President Obama as he signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act into law. As President, I am honored to be Commander-in-Chief of the strongest and most inclusive military in our nation’s history. Today, our military doesn’t just welcome LGBTQ+ service members—it is led at the highest levels by brave LGBTQ+ veterans, including Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly, who served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I was gratified to appoint the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet member, Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve and Afghanistan veteran who joined the military under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. And during my first week in office, I proudly delivered on my pledge to repeal the discriminatory ban on open service by patriotic transgender service members.

On this day and every day, I am thankful for all of the LGBTQ+ service members and veterans who strengthen our military and our nation. We must honor their sacrifice by continuing the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ people, including by finally passing the Equality Act and living up to our highest values of justice and equality for all.

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HHS awards more than $48 million to HRSA centers in effort to beat HIV/AIDS

Biden campaigned on beating epidemic by 2025

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HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra hailed the contribution of more than $48 million to beat HIV/AIDS. (photo public domain)

The Biden administration has awarded more than $48 million to medical centers under Health Resources & Services Administration in localities with high incidents of HIV infection as part of the initiative to beat the disease, the Washington Blade has learned exclusively.

Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, said in a statement the contributions are key component of the initiative, which is called “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.” and seeks to reduce new infections by 90 percent by 2030.

“HHS-supported community health centers are often a key point of entry to HIV prevention and treatment services, especially for underserved populations,” Becerra said in a statement. “I am proud of the role they play in providing critical services to 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. Today’s awards will ensure equitable access to services free from stigma and discrimination, while advancing the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2025.”

The $48 million contribution went to HRSA centers 271 HRSA-supported health centers across 26 states, Puerto Rico and D.C. — areas identified with the highest rates of HIV infections — to expand HIV prevention and treatment services, including access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as well as outreach and care coordination, according to HHS.

The Ending the HIV Epidemic was set up under the Trump administration, which made PrEP a generic drug after an accelerated effort and set a goal of beating HIV by 2030. Biden has continued the project, after campaigning on beating HIV a full five years earlier in 2025. Observers, however, are skeptical he can meet that goal.

Diana Espinosa, acting HRSA administrator, said in a statement the $48 million will go a long way in reaching goals to beat HIV/AIDS.

“We know our Health Center Program award recipients are well-positioned to advance the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. initiative, with a particular focus on facilitating access to PrEP, because of their integrated service delivery model,” Espinosa said. “By integrating HIV services into primary care, and providing essential enabling services like language access or case management, HRSA-supported health centers increase access to care and improve health outcomes for patients living with HIV.”

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Melania Trump announced as guest for Log Cabin Republicans’ annual dinner

Former first lady Melania Trump is set to be a special guest at the annual “Spirit of Lincoln” dinner hosted by Log Cabin Republicans.

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Former first lady Melania Trump is set to be a special guest at the annual “Spirit of Lincoln” dinner hosted by Log Cabin Republicans, the organization announced on Tuesday.

The event — which will take place Nov. 6 at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., marking a change of tradition in holding the dinner in D.C. — will likely mark an attempt for Melania Trump to develop her image as an LGBTQ ally and tamp down the reputation the Trump administration was hostile to LGBTQ people.

Charles Moran, managing director for Log Cabin Republicans, hailed Melania Trump in a statement for her work as first lady and breaking barriers for the Republican Party.

“Melania Trump’s work as First Lady, from helping children reach their full potential to championing a more inclusive Republican Party, has been historic,” Moran said. “Her vocal support of Log Cabin Republicans has been a signal to Republicans everywhere that it is possible to simultaneously be conservative and support equality under the law for all Americans.”

According to the Log Cabin Republicans, Melania Trump at the dinner will be awarded with the 2021 Spirit of Lincoln Award. Other high-profile Republicans in the past who have appeared at the annual event are Carly Fiorina, Newt Gingrich, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Mary Cheney.

Moran, in response to an email inquiry from the Washington Blade, said Melania Trump will not only be an award recipient, but is set to deliver remarks at the event.

It won’t be the first time Melania Trump has collaborated with Log Cabin. During the 2020 election, she appeared in a video for Outspoken, the media arm for Log Cabin Republicans, saying “nothing could be further from the truth” her husband, former President Trump, is against LGBTQ people.

Among the anti-LGBTQ policies under Trump were a transgender military ban, religious freedom carve-out seen to enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination and the U.S. Justice Department arguing against LGBTQ inclusion under civil rights law when the issue was before the U.S. Supreme Court. Nonetheless, Trump connected with a certain faction of LGBTQ people and his administration included high-profile LGBTQ appointees, such as Richard Grenell as the first openly gay person to serve in a Cabinet role.

As first reported by the Washington Blade, Melania Trump said in 2020 she wanted to light up the White House in rainbow colors similar to the display during the Obama years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for same-sex marriage nationwide. However, the vision never came to pass at a time when White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had a role in quashing an symbolic support for LGBTQ people in Pride Month.

The Log Cabin announcement comes at a time when Melania Trump is facing new scrutiny over her response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and whether she erroneously believes, like her husband, he was the winner of the 2020 election.

According to a preview in Politico, former White House press secretary and Melania Trump aide Stephanie Grisham says in her upcoming book she texted the former first lady on Jan. 6 to ask: “Do you want to tweet that peaceful protests are the right of every American, but there is no place for lawlessness and violence?”

A minute later, Melania replied with a one-word answer: “No,” Grisham reportedly writes of her account. At that moment, Grisham writes she was at the White House preparing for a photo shoot of a rug she had selected, according to Politico.

The Blade has placed a request in with the office of former President Donald Trump to confirm her appearance at the dinner and comment on what went into the Melania Trump’s decision to appear at the event.

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