Obama’s LGBT Legacy is on the November Ballot

President Obama at the NATO summit in Poland earlier this month

oct-2016-pete-souzaBY KAREN OCAMB  |  The November 8 elections are the most consequential elections in our lifetimes. Full stop. And while most of the attention is on the outcome of the one of the most controversial presidential races in U.S. history, the down-ballot initiatives and local and congressional races are also extraordinarily important. (See Equality California’s Voter Guide here.)

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The stakes couldn’t be higher for LGBT Americans with President Obama’s pro-equality legacy on the ballot. Even if Democratic contender Hillary Clinton wins—and efforts are made to protect all the gains made and expand on LGBT rights as human rights, including appointing an LGBT person to a Cabinet position—she will still be faced with an obstructionist Republican Congress intent to delegitimize government in order to take greater power in the 2018 mid-term elections, as they did in 1994, 2010, 2014 to name deliberately destructive federal examples.

Thanks to Citizens United and the politics of destruction and ideological polarization started by Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” in 1994, legislators in all levels of government are entrenched in permanent campaigning. The angry, anti-intellectual populist base will decry any working “across the aisle” as a betrayal, as working with “the enemy.” #ScorchedEarth will be constantly trending and with it, the new permission to hate and act upon racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, and of course, sexism.

This is not hyperbole. In fact, we’ve experienced this before, two decades ago. Then-dark horse presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s friend David Mixner and the Los Angeles-based checkbook activist group ANGLE (Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality), outraged by AIDS and Religious Right hatred, raised $3.2 million in early money and mobilized the first LGBT voting bloc for the 1992 election.  Because gay issues had become part of the national discussion, Voter News Service surveyed gays, lesbians and bisexuals in their exit poll. http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/gayvote.pdf Of the 15,488 voters interviewed, 3.2 percent identified as LGB, on par with Latinos (3.2) more than Asian Americans (1.3), and just under Jews (3.8).

And yet, when Clinton indicated he really did intend to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military in 1993, he was told by Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to kill the plan or be faced with getting nothing done in Congress. To underscore his seriousness, Nunn held more hearings and spent more time focused on the issue than he did on the defense budget or the raging Tailhook scandal of Navy sexual harassment.

All that gay money, the historic voting bloc, the promises meant nothing in the face of such threatening obstructionism.

No matter who wins the presidency this year, the ultra-right Congressional Freedom Caucus has already announced their intention to push conservative House Speaker Paul Ryan further and further to the right. There’s even the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court having to operate with only eight justices instead of nine. So imagine what LGBT promise or plan could be stopped or scuttled and what existing right might be surrendered on the alter of necessity?

Let’s take a moment and appreciate what eight years of the Obama presidency has provided for his LGBT constituency, for his is a legacy unmatched in American history. But let’s also not forget, Obama has played the politician, trying to have it both ways on thorny issues.

Obama started off slowly, angering progressive activists who questioned whether his heart was truly in his soaring rhetoric. But finally, he came around, helping create a significant turning point for the LGBT movement that will have a lasting impact.

In those early years, where the Democratic-controlled Congress could pass progressive legislation, he signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which gave the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute violent crime where the victim may have been attacked because they were LGBT – but the local authorities turned a blind eye. And in 2010, he issued a presidential memorandum that required hospitals that take Medicare or Medicaid to “respect the rights of patients to designate visitors,” giving LGBT non-family hospital visitation rights. Later, in 2013, he also signed the LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act.

Obama also signed the hard-won repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As Kerry Eleveld wrote in her book, Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency, and explains in her Daily Kos column, “’don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal broke the logjam on LGBT rights and became the difference between Barack Obama’s presidency being simply an important milestone in the equality movement versus a monumental turning point in history for LGBT rights. Repeal was not only universally popular among Obama’s progressive base — unlike the stimulus and health care reform at the time — it produced virtually no negative backlash, culturally, politically, or otherwise.”

And then there’s marriage equality. The LGBT community was stunned and angered when Obama went to Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Presidential Forum in April 2008 and said he believed marriage was between a man and a woman because, “as a Christian, it is also a scared union. God’s in the mix.” He told MTV that November, as California was fighting Prop 8, that he didn’t believe in gay marriage but “when you start playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that’s not what America’s about.”

And then Obama picked Warren to deliver the Innovation at his Inauguration and it seemed the new president just didn’t see us. Obama supporters were excited just to get this in his 2008 speech accepting the nomination: “I know there are differences on same-sex marriage – but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.”

Then Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim published the questionnaire asked of Obama in 1996 when he ran for Illinois state senate—  in which the candidate said: “I favor legalizing same sex marriages.” Running for U.S. Senate and then president, he decided to back civil unions instead. The administration argued that someone else filled out the questionnaire. But in his book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, Obama top campaign advisor David Axelrod writes: “Opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church, and as he ran for higher office, he grudgingly accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions rather than marriage, which he would term a ‘sacred union.’”

That looked like backtracking on a fundamental constitutional right by the one-time constitutional law professor. But by 2012, Obama said he had “evolved” and finally came out in favor of marriage equality, nudged by Vice President Joe Biden.

And yet even then, in his interview with still-closeted Robin Roberts of ABC News in May 2012, he tried to have it both ways.

“At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married. Now, I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn’t want to nationalize the issue. There’s a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized.”

And then Obama added: “I think it’s important to recognize that folks who feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as between a man and a woman, many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families. And they, they have a different understanding, in terms of, you know, what the word ‘marriage’ should mean. And I … a bunch of ’em are friends of mine, you know, pastors, and you know, people who I deeply respect.”

Because they care about families?

But Obama did evolve, ordering Attorney General Eric Holder not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in any federal trial because DOMA was unconstitutional. That lead to success in the Supreme Court and the awarding of equal marriage rights in all 50 states.

There are other political head-scratchers. The Obama administration developed the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS strategy in 2010 —though without urgency—and subsequently updated it with community input to address disparities. But just before his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, the CDC estimate the epidemic was 40% greater than in the previous decade and the rate of new HIV infections each year was over 56,000, up from an annual rate of 40,000 new infections.

And, as I wrote on the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karen-ocamb/requiem-for-gay-political_b_123061.html at the time, “Even more astounding – this at a convention run by the campaign of a man who proudly talked about getting an HIV test with his wife, Michelle. He knows the AIDS statistics in the black community, which, despite being only 13% of the US population, experienced about 45% of the new HIV infections in 2006.”

There was no HIV speaker, the “issue” was hardly mentioned. Black AIDS institute founder Phill Wilson also took notice: “It was disappointing that on the occasion of this historic nomination, that one of the greatest health threats facing America today was not more front and center during this year’s Convention. This is my fourth Democratic Convention and it has never been so difficult to put HIV/AIDS on the agenda. At a time when the AIDS epidemic is worse in our nation’s capital than in many parts of Sub Saharan Africa, how can AIDS not be a featured as a priority by our Democratic Presidential nominee?”

As Obama leaves office, rates of HIV are still incredibly high among young gay black and Latino men.

All of that said­—one’s legacy must be considered in full, flaws and all—President Barack Obama did evolve and transformed the way America sees us and changed how LGBT people can live, love and work in this country. The Human Rights Campaign has an extensive report  on the incredible advancements made under the Obama administration— including 15 LGBT federal judicial appointees, 9 federal Ambassadorial appointees—250 appointments overall—and 128 policy and regulation changes.

And the policy changes continue, including promoting LGBT rights as human rights around the world. On Oct. 27, former UN Ambassador and current National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice delivered an extraordinary address at the School of International Service at American University on the administration’s accomplishments, actions that have been taken out of sight, U.S. policy changes and the effect on changing actions and policies in other countries – and her own personal commitment to protect and promote LGBT rights around the globe.

“I know the challenges are daunting. The slurs, the hate, the violence can feel overwhelming,” Rice said. “But when I look at what we’ve accomplished, I’m filled with hope. I’m hopeful when I think of how my own son and daughter are part of a generation in this country that embraces LGBT rights as obvious and uncontroversial. I’m hopeful because of you. And, I’m hopeful because, last month, my husband and I celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary. For many couples, that might not seem remarkable. But, we remember, when we started dating almost 35 years ago, that many people said that someone who looked like me shouldn’t marry someone who looked like him—that inter-racial marriage was unnatural and immoral. Stop me if that sounds familiar.”

And that’s where the major change has occurred: not only the American people and citizens of the world but the policy makers now see us, now empathize and are willing to take stands with us or on our behalf—whether it gets noticed, or news coverage or not.

“Somewhere in the world right now, there is a young boy lying awake at night guarding a secret he has kept for as long as he can remember,” Rice told the audience. “Somewhere, there is a young woman who can love both men and women and has nobody to tell her that’s OK. Somewhere, in the United States, there is a man who has always felt like a stranger in his own body. So, to every person who might still be struggling with who they are, trying to reconcile who they love with the faith or traditions they love, know this: we see you. We hear you. We are here for you. And, on behalf of all those people—each of them a child of equal worth, a child of God—let us renew our efforts to battle discrimination in all its guises and embrace diversity in all its forms. Until every one of us is truly treated equally—no matter who we are, where we live, or whom we love.”

That’s the change— and that’s Obama’s LGBT legacy: we are finally recognized for who we really are.

And in addition to putting the change in attitude in laws and executive orders and policy, President Obama puts LGBT people in the context of civil rights and the Declaration of Independence.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began,” President Obama said in his 2013 Inaugural Address.

Continuing that legacy—that obvious and uncontroversial inclusion—is up to us and who we pick to represent us on Nov. 8.

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