Like a cool drink of water on a scorching political day, roughly 41 frenzied hours before Donald Trump’s controversial inauguration, President Barack Obama offered up some welcome bromides to those sick to their stomach about the next phase of American history in his final news conference.
Obama touched on several issues, starting with his reason for giving clemency to transgender Army solider Chelsea Manning, and he took questions from among the diverse White House press corps, including Washington Blade reporter Chris Johnson. Obama ended his final news conference as President of the United States echoing the message of hope he offered as a candidate in 2008.
It was a message meant to heal the divisions caused by the outcome of the presidential election. But instead of sermonizing and pontificating about how non-Trump voters should overcome their disappointment and broken hearts, Obama shared the experience of his daughters Malia and Sasha, who have grown up in the public eye.
“They were disappointed,” Obama said, but they paid attention to their parents who tried to teach them resilience “and we’ve tried to teach them hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”
The Obamas have also taught their children that if they get knocked down, “you get up, brush yourself off and you get back to work,” the president said. “But, both of them have grown up in an environment where I think they could not help, but be patriotic to love this country deeply, to see that it’s flawed, but see that they have responsibilities to fix it. And that they need to be active citizens. And they have to be in a position to talk to their friends and their teachers and their future co-workers in ways that try to shed some light as opposed to just generate a lot of sound and fury. And I expect that’s what they’re going to do. They do not — they don’t mope.”
Obama’s daughters were key to his grasping how their generation has already embraced LGBT rights. Obama said he commuted Pfc. Chelsea Manning’s “tough” prison sentence of 35 years after her conviction by a military court in 2013 for giving thousands of pages of classified and unclassified information about US wartime activities to WikiLeaks in 2010. Manning claimed she was a whistleblower and has apologized for her actions. She has also repeatedly begged for proper treatment as a transgender prisoner, going on hunger strikes to demand “dignity and respect,” https://theintercept.com/2016/09/09/chelsea-manning-begins-hunger-strike-demanding-dignity-and-respect-in-prison/ and has tried to commit suicide during her almost seven years in custody, often in isolation, in an all-male section at Ft. Leavenworth prison in Kansas. She is expected to be released in May.
“The sentence she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received,” Obama said, referring to other more senior military officials who also leaked classified information. “I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent” that leakers will face consequences.
When called upon toward the end of the news conference, The Blade’s Chris Johnson, whose works also appears in this newspaper, asked the president about his legacy on LGBT rights. Here’s President Obama’s complete response:
“I could not be prouder of the transformation that’s taken place in our society just in the last decade. And, I’ve said before, I think we made some useful contributions to it, but the primary heroes in this stage of our — our growth as a Democracy and a society are all the individual activists and sons and daughters and couples who courageously said, this is who I am and I’m proud of it.
And, that opened people’s minds and opened their hearts. And, eventually, laws caught up. But, I don’t think any of that would have happened without the activism, in some cases loud and noisy, but in some cases just quiet and very personal. And — and I think that what we did as an administration was to help to — the society to move in a better direction, but to do so in a way that didn’t create an enormous backlash and was — was systematic and respectful of the fact, you know, in some cases these issues were controversial.
I think the way we handled, for example, don’t ask, don’t tell, being methodical about it, working with the joint chiefs, making sure we showed this would not have an impact on the effectiveness of the greatest military on Earth. And then to have Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Chairman Mike Mullen and joint chiefs who were open to evidence and ultimately worked with me to do the right thing.
I am proud of that, but again, none of that would have happened without this incredible transformation that was happening in society out there. You know, when I gave Ellen the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I meant what I said. I think somebody that kind and likable, projecting into, you know, living rooms around the country. You know, that changed attitudes. And that wasn’t easy to do for her. And that’s just one small example of what was happening in countless communities all across the country.
So — so I’m proud that in certain places we maybe provided a good block down field to help the movement advance. I don’t think it is something that will be reversible because American society has changed, the attitudes of young people, in particular, have changed. That doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be some fights that are important, legal issues, issues surrounding transgender persons. There’s still going to be some battles that need to take place.
But, if you talk to young people, Malia, Sasha’s generation, even if their Republicans, even if their Conservative, many of them will tell you, I don’t understand how you would discriminate against somebody because of sexual orientation. That’s just sort of burned into them in — in pretty powerful ways.
Write, activist and educator Frank Bua penned a “Gay Dad’s Love Letter” to Obama recently, that reverberates even more as Trump’s inauguration approaches and LGBT folks wonder if the progress made will be pushed backward. For some, like Bua, the progress is very, very personal.
“Next time I fill out my children’s governmental forms, I will not be forced to complete a box labeled “mother” like I did last time. Now, families like my own are allowed to re-enter the country as the unit that we are. These gestures may have gone unnoticed by the general public, but not by those of us who for decades have felt the simple desire to be treated like everybody else,” Bua wrote, after citing several examples of Obama’s LGBT rights record.
“For Easter in 2011, my partner and I took our twins to the White House Easter Egg Roll. As a formerly closeted man who fearfully came of age during the Reagan years, I had a near out-of-body experience watching my two-year old children frolic carefree on the lawn of the White House and in the shadows of history. I felt a sense of belonging I had never before imagined, and I left the South Lawn with renewed optimism in the direction of our country,” he wrote.
“Under your stewardship, the United States – long a nation where people viewed the Bible as more of an operations manual than the Constitution – has become an LGBT city upon a hill. If we indeed have to be taught to hate, you have demonstrated – through your family and actions – that by modeling acceptance and tolerance, love can be learned,” Bua wrote, speaking for many others. “For your vision, for your resolve in the face of unfathomable obstacles and detractors, and for inspiring everyone to aspire to greatness, I and my family thank you.”
In his closing remarks, Obama returned to that theme of optimism. “I believe in this country. I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe tragic things happen. I think there’s evil in the world, but I think at the end of the day, if we work hard and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time. That’s what this presidency has tried to be about. And I see that in the young people I’ve worked with. I couldn’t be prouder of them,” he said.
“Sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does, but at my core, I think we’re going to be OK. We just have to fight for it, we have to work for it and not take it for granted and I know that you will help us do that. Thank you very much, Press Corps, good luck.”
(See the complete transcript of the news conference and the video here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/politics/obama-final-press-conference.html )