Obama’s Flurry of LGBT Rights Protections
If there were any lingering doubts over President Barack Obama’s legacy on LGBT rights, the nation’s first African-American president appeared to wipe them away last week.
On June 16, after years of pressure from outside groups, the White House announced that Obama would sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The news that Obama would at last act on something he said he would do when running for president in 2008 was greeted with applause - and relief - from LGBT advocates previously puzzled by inaction on the executive order.
Days later, the Obama administration announced additional actions against Uganda, including cuts in aid and restricting entry to the U.S. by certain Ugandan officials, for the implementation of an anti-LGBT law earlier this year. The move, advocates say, sets a precedent for dealing with other countries considering laws that target LGBT people.
And then on Friday, the Obama administration concluded what is being called the vastest conferral of rights to LGBT people in American history. In a memo to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the completion of the administration’s implementation of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, ending the federal government’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
"I am pleased to report that agencies across the federal government have implemented the Windsor decision to treat married same-sex couples the same as married opposite-sex couples for the benefits and obligations for which marriage is relevant, to the greatest extent possible under the law," Holder wrote.
On Friday, the Labor Department also announced it is proposing a rule change to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) clarifying that employees are eligible for leave to care for a same-sex spouse, regardless of whether they live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. The Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs announced additional guidance for same-sex couples, while noting that they cannot fully extend benefits until areas of federal law are updated by Congress. Meanwhile, both Holder and the White House renewed their calls on Congress to pass legislation that would correct areas of federal law that continue to prevent the extension of benefits.
Judging by the reaction from advocates, such steps have cemented Obama’s legacy as the greatest ally the LGBT community has ever known to occupy the White House.
"President Obama’s advocacy on behalf of LGBT people is nothing less than historic. There is no question that the lives of LGBT people today are immeasurably better today than they were before this president took office," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement. "The administration’s sweeping interpretation and implementation of the Windsor decision has led to [the] greatest conferral of equal rights, benefits and obligations to LGBT people in our nation’s history. In record time, Attorney General Holder has moved heaven and earth to guarantee equality, and the LGBT community could not ask for a better partner in progress."
Since taking the oath of office in January 2009, Obama has checked off a long list of LGBT accomplishments. The first sitting American president to openly endorse same-sex marriage, he has all but ensured that a Democrat will never again be able to run for the White House without supporting marriage equality. Under his direction, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department ceased defending DOMA in federal court. When the Supreme Court heard arguments in same-sex marriage cases for the first time in March 2013, Obama’s solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, urged the Supreme Court justices to strike down DOMA as well as California’s same-sex marriage ban. The repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" bears his signature, and the White House has indicated his openness to at least a review of the military’s existing ban on transgender service. Early on, Obama endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and promised to sign it into law when it reaches his desk. He also signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with new LGBT protections, helped enact hate crime legislation, lifted the ban on people with HIV traveling to the U.S. and made the human rights of LGBT people a key plank of his foreign policy.
Of course, there are issues that remain, and Obama has rarely been out front of such issues - and at times seemingly a step behind his vice president, Joe Biden, who not only endorsed marriage equality two days before Obama but also expressed support for the executive order in April. But last week’s movement on LGBT-rights by the Obama administration builds upon a record that is unparalleled in American politics, and one that Obama has conveyed pride in. He has openly spoken about the struggles of not just gay Americans, but also transgender Americans, in settings as varying as interviews with television and print media outlets to high profile speeches such as his second inaugural address.
Through words and actions, Obama has not only solidified his legacy on these issues, but also his political party’s reputation as the stalwart supporter of LGBT rights at a time when public opinion is increasingly shifting in favor of equality. What once was a wedge issue used by Republicans against Democrats is increasingly becoming one used by Democrats against Republicans, including by Obama himself.
"So now you flash back 10 years ago. Maybe no single issue divided our country more than same-sex marriage," Obama told LGBT donors last week at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in New York City. "In fact, the Republican Party built their entire strategy for 2004 around this issue. You remember? They calculated that if they put constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on state ballots, they’d turn out more voters, they’d win. And they, frankly, were right. People flocked to the polls. Those amendments were on the ballots in 11 states. They passed in every single one. Now, here’s a good bet. They’re not going to try the same strategy in 2014."