He's Been Our President

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BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Too cerebral. Unwilling to engage in bare-knuckles political war with his Republican enemies. Naïve, in fact, about his ability to find common ground with a GOP determined to undermine, even delegitimize him from Day 1.

Those are the typical knocks – especially from progressives – aimed at Barack Obama, the first Democratic president to win a majority of votes twice since Franklin Roosevelt and the one who finally delivered on Harry Truman’s pledge nearly 70 years ago to reshape health care in America. That goal achieved even as he brought the nation back from its worst economic slump since the Great Depression – to an unemployment rate just over 4.5 percent as he leaves office.

These common critiques have been paralleled by dissatisfaction among LGBTQ activists, especially during the president’s first term. The White House equivocated on the push to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, intending a military review of that policy to forestall the need for immediate repeal. The failure to push the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (a measure the community now agrees was insufficient, anyway) at the same time missed the slim window of Democratic congressional control. Obama hesitated on marriage equality, only pushed over the line in advance of his reelection by his loquacious vice president.

Journalists and historians will weigh all these questions for a long time to come – and activists can rightly claim credit for keeping pressure on their ally/ president to turn the poetry of campaigning into meaningful governing prose.


But with just weeks to go until Barack Obama leaves the White House, one thing cannot be denied: he was our president in ways no one ever had been before.

To be sure, despite candidate Obama’s lofty 2008 rhetoric, specific action on LGBTQ issue came slowly. Still, after more than a decade’s delay, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed in 2009, and the new administration ended a policy dating back to 1993 that barred entry and immigration into the US by HIV-positive non-citizens.

Even as the administration moved too cautiously for advocates on DADT repeal, it took the first of what in time would be many significant steps to advance the community’s interests through administrative actions. Hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid funding – essentially all of them – were required to grant visitation rights to patients’ same-sex partners. In the early ramp-up of Obamacare, the Department of Health and Human Services made clear it would work to end discriminatory barriers to transgender people receiving appropriate health care. In global affairs, Hillary Clinton, while secretary of state, told the world that gay rights are human rights.

In its earliest response to lawsuits challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, the administration stumbled badly, relying on discredited, even offensive justifications for the 1996 law. But when given the opportunity of a case in a federal judicial circuit that had no existing precedent on how sexual orientation discrimination claims should be evaluated, Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, came through. Faced with Edie Windsor’s suit in the New York-based Second Circuit, the Justice Department analyzed the issue from scratch and determined that the statute merited heightened scrutiny, a demanding judicial standard it could not survive. From that point forward, the administration would not defend DOMA in court.

It is hard to overestimate the significance of the US solicitor general declining to defend a law before a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court. By the time DOMA arrived at the high court in 2013, it was left to the House Republican leadership to argue on its behalf.

By then, of course, Obama had endorsed marriage equality, and when the underlying question of same-sex couples’ right to marry reached the Supreme Court two years later, the Obama administration was once again on the side of our community. On the evening of June 26, 2015, when the marriage victory was handed down, the White House was bathed in rainbow lights.


In his second term, Obama endorsed the framework for a more comprehensive nondiscrimination measure – going beyond employment to incorporate all the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – though the new Equality Act has been stymied in the GOP Congress. But by then, the president had issued an executive order barring sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination by businesses contracting with the US government.

As in other areas, Obama became increasingly bold in using executive action to advance important policy goals on our community’s behalf. The Department of Health and Human Services has been in court defending its regulation that discrimination under Obamacare based on gender identity is illegal sex discrimination, a position pioneered by presidential appointee Chai Feldblum at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency that has affirmatively litigated to establish the precedent that both gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination are already protected under the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s sex discrimination prohibition.

The Education Department, applying that analysis, informed public schools they must allow transgender students access to bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The Justice Department sued the state of North Carolina for its notorious HB2, an action announced in a dramatic press conference where Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, “Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself… No matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

And that is where Barack Obama brought his presidency over the course of eight years. The cautious ally had, in fact, become the fierce advocate he once pledged to be. As we prepare to battle the anti- LGBTQ officials Donald Trump has named to helm the agencies mentioned above – which have recently worked so hard for our well-being – let’s always remember that there is another way.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

B. Church says:
Obama's record on healthcare and his "evolution" on marriage may be enough to make some LGBT folks feel that he's been "our" president, but I can't help wondering how many innocent children he killed by drone would have, if they hadn't been blown to bits, grown up LGB or T. We will never know.
Jan. 5, 2017, 3:43 pm
Doug Robinson says:
I love and will miss our president which is why I campaigned for him in both elections. Progressives have begun a very hard fight with the Trump on the doorsteps of the Whitehouse. I urge all Americans to join our fight to take back the Whitehouse in 4 years!
Jan. 5, 2017, 4:36 pm
Michael Bedwell says:
REALITY CHECK. One can certainly recognize and applaud Barack Obama’s actual achievements for LGBTs without such hagiographic spinning of facts to a degree that would make the Administration’s own staff propagandists wet their Calvins. This valentine ignores/rewrites the years of detailed reporting by the author and others at GCN on Mr. Obama starting with credit for having "ended a policy dating back to 1993 that barred entry and immigration into the US by HIV-positive non-citizens” when Mr. Schindler previously correctly reported that Obama simply IMPLEMENTED a bill that was passed by the previous Congress and signed by the otherwise largely loathsome George Bush fils. Yet it took Obama, Inc., a YEAR to do that while HIV+ visitors continued to be turned away. The hate crimes bill? Obama simply SIGNED that, doing NOTHING resembling his promise to “place the weight of my administration behind [its] enactment.” On what planet would keeping that promise solely encompass posing for a photo with Judy Shepard and sending a THREE SENTENCE statement to Congress a few days before it was voted on? And try telling those some 700 LGBs he needlessly let be kicked out of the military how wonderful he was. YES, I genuinely DO appreciate the ACTUAL contributions to LGBT progress by Mr. Obama and his Administration. But too often only his heart and pretty words were in the right place. Continuing to moo over him as if he were Christ on a cracker summoning down benefits from the heavens that no one ever thought of before when, in fact, all of them were the result of years of advocating and activism and even acts of civil disobedience by LGBT people themselves insults those who actually MADE them happen, time and time again having to beg, coerce (Obama only stopped defending DOMA after the GayTM threatened to close the DNC’s account), sue (again and again and AGAIN re DADT and DOMA), drag him to replace words with action. Thank you.
Jan. 5, 2017, 5:56 pm
Art Leonard says:
This article doesn't mention a raft of historic appointments of lesbians and gay men to the federal judiciary. (Bill Clinton appointed only one.). And numerous appointments of openly gay and lesbian diplomats and executive branch officials, including the first transgender White House staff member.
Jan. 6, 2017, 8:25 pm
Bill Guy says:
No matter who occupies the White House, you are not going to get everything you want. Had the base of the Democrats bothered to show up during the 2010-2014 mid-terms the progressive movement would have advanced, further, and faster. The left was ill-prepared to deal with the reactionary ‘backlash’ of having the first Black president of the United States of America. Historically backlash happened when social progress lurched forward. With an approval rating globally at 60 percent, Obama’s presidency gave people hope when someone that is not a heterosexual Caucasian male could aspire to the highest office. President Obama is one person, it is the will of the people, or the lack there of- that factored in many of the policies that fell short, not just in the Affordable Care Act, but advances in the LGBT community as well. Voter suppression, voter apathy, and gerrymandering are the three dynamics in our polity that have put us in this untenable place in history, and giving us what we have now as the incoming 45th president. The reality check here is we have to start paying attention to what goes on in Washington and the representatives we send there. Obama was our president; it’s now up to us to continue the movement forward toward equality.
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