Without Fanfare, Obama Advances Transgender Rights
President Barack Obama, who established his bona fides as a gay and lesbian rights champion when he endorsed same-sex marriage, has steadily extended his administration's advocacy to the smallest and least accepted band of the LGBT rainbow: transgender Americans.
With little of the fanfare or criticism that marked his evolution into the leader Newsweek nicknamed "the first gay president," Obama became the first chief executive to say "transgender" in a speech, to name transgender political appointees and to prohibit job bias against transgender government workers. Also in his first term, he signed hate crime legislation that became the first federal civil rights protections for transgender people in U.S. history.
Since then, the administration has quietly applied the power of the executive branch to make it easier for transgender people to update their passports, obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, get treatment at Veteran's Administration facilities and seek access to public school restrooms and sports programs -- just a few of the transgender-specific policy shifts of Obama's presidency.
"He has been the best president for transgender rights, and nobody else is in second place," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said of Obama, who is the only president to invite transgender children to participate in the annual Easter egg roll at the White House.
Religious conservative groups quick to criticize the president for his gay rights advocacy have been much slower to respond to the administration's actions. The leader of the Traditional Values Coalition says there is little recourse because the changes come through executive orders and federal agencies rather than Congress.
The latest wins came this month, when the Office of Personnel Management announced that government-contracted health insurers could start covering the cost of gender reassignment surgeries for federal employees, retirees and their survivors, ending a 40-year prohibition. Two weeks earlier, a decades-old rule preventing Medicare from financing such procedures was overturned within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Unlike Obama's support for same-sex marriage and lifting the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay troops, the White House's work to promote transgender rights has happened mostly out of the spotlight.
Some advances have gone unnoticed because they also benefited the much larger gay, lesbian and bisexual communities. That was the case Monday when the White House announced that Obama plans to sign an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In other instances, transgender rights groups and the administration have agreed on a low-key approach, both to skirt resistance and to send the message that changes are not a big deal, said Barbara Siperstein, who in 2009 became the first transgender person elected to the Democratic National Committee.
"It's quiet by design, because the louder you are in Washington, the more the drama," said Siperstein, who helped organize the first meeting between White House aides and transgender rights advocates without the participation of gay rights leaders.
The 2011 meeting came 34 years after Jimmy Carter's administration made history by meeting with gay rights groups. Obama's Cabinet and federal agencies have followed up with actions significantly expanding transgender rights without congressional approval.
For instance, Health and Human Services said in 2012 that it would apply the non-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act to investigate federally funded health plans and care providers that refused to serve transgender individuals.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Education Department informed public schools that under its reading of Title IX, the 1972 law that bans gender discrimination in education, transgender students are entitled to federal civil rights protections. The information was included in a memo on schools' obligations to respond to student-on-student sexual violence.
Obama has made clear the guidance has potentially broad implications.
"Title IX is a very powerful tool," he said last week. "The fact that we are applying it to transgender students means that they are going to be in a position to assert their rights if and when they see that they are being discriminated on their college campuses."
Meanwhile, religious conservative groups' opposition to transgender advocacy has trickled in.
The Traditional Values Coalition has lobbied against a bill that would provide federal workplace protections for gay and transgender people by warning that it would require schools to permit teachers to remain on the job amid gender transitions. Group President Andrea Lafferty said no one should mistake the absence of vocal opposition for acquiescence.
"There are other people who are concerned about these things, definitely. I think America is just overwhelmed right now," she said. "Everybody is going to have to take a step back, and that step back is going to be this November."
The stage was set for Obama to become a champion of transgender rights when the LGBT community split over an earlier version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that Lafferty's group is fighting.
In fall 2007, openly gay Rep. Barney Frank pursued, with the blessing of the nation's largest gay rights group, legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians, but not transgender people. As Frank put it plainly, there were not enough Democratic votes to get a "trans-inclusive" law through the House.
Transgender advocates who had lobbied for legal recognition of same-sex relationships were livid and persuaded more than 100 civil rights groups to oppose a bill that left transgender rights for another day.
"The community was forced to decide: Where are you going to stand?" recalled Diego Sanchez, who was the first openly transgender person appointed to the DNC's platform committee and later became the first transgender staff member on Capitol Hill as Frank's top senior policy adviser.
At the 2008 Democratic convention where Obama was nominated, 28 years after the party pledged to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation, language was added to accomplish the same for gender identity.
As president, Obama has embraced the task of putting that pledge into practice, said Sanchez, now national policy director at Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
"It's easier for voices to be heard once you are already in the room," he said. "What has changed is who is listening."