Saying that the political landscape has changed for the LGBT community over the past four years is a rather significant understatement. During the four years of President Barack Obama’s administration, LGBT political issues have shifted on a number of issues, on both state and national levels.
When it comes to tackling LGBT issues, the Obama administration has often angered members of the community by not acting on issues immediately. Activists have taken issues like marriage equality, the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and pressured Obama and Congress to act.
While progress has moved more slowly than many would like, the administration’s movement on a number of issues is substantial. Still, the administration has a significant amount of work ahead of itself.
Progress in the Obama Administration
The most notable change to date is the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Originally introduced in 1993 by President Clinton as a “compromise measure,” DADT was a primary target by LGBT activists in the first few years of the Obama administration, and was a campaign issue for Obama during the 2008 presidential election.
The topic of repeal during the administration finally came up during Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address, where the president stated, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs supported Obama in his statement.
Subsequently, the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate tried to end the policy by attaching it to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011. The specific wording provided for the repeal of the DADT policy following a study by the Department of Defense to ensure the change would not harm military effectiveness, with a 60 day waiting period following the study’s submission.
While the measure passed in the House, a filibuster led by Sen. John McCain blocked it in the Senate. When debate on the Defense Authorization Act was blocked by filibuster during the lame duck session in 2010, Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins introduced a stand-alone bill that tackled the issue. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 subsequently passed the House and Senate, and was signed into law by President Obama on December 22, 2010. Full implementation of the repeal occurred on September 20, 2011.
This relatively lengthy approach to dismantling DADT is characteristic of what conservative gay writer Andrew Sullivan describes as Obama’s “long game.” Rather than create a change by executive order, which many people hoped Obama would do, Obama was able to get his (Republican) defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to make moves arguing for repeal. The process made its way through the legislative branch, which ensured debate and made passage look impossible at times. But it was accomplished. And because of the manner in which it was accomplished, the change took on a far more durable form than a simple executive order.
Similarly going through the “long game” procedure is the Obama administration’s take on the Defense of Marriage Act. While not targeting the act directly with proposed legislation, President Obama has called for the repeal of DOMA. More notably, the Justice Department said in February 2011 that it would no longer defend DOMA in court because it deems the act unconstitutional. The latter move has met with criticism, particularly from House Republicans, who are pursuing a legal defense of the law.
Another area where Obama deserves credit is the removal of the HIV Travel Ban in 2010. The ban, which came into play in 1987, barred HIV-positive foreigners from obtaining permanent immigration status or entering the country without special waivers. While previous presidents made efforts to lift the restrictions, these efforts were ultimately futile. The ban itself, as well as the effect of its lift, significantly affects bi-national couples and families. Between DOMA and the HIV Travel Ban, bi-national couples in which at least one partner was HIV-positive lived in fear of being split apart, assuming they chose to live in the U.S. Lifting the ban has made it easier for bi-national couples to avoid this problem.
Finally, there’s the recent news of Obama’s stance on marriage equality. While Obama agreed that same-sex couples had the right for civil unions, he spent much of his first term talking about an “evolving” view on marriage equality. That is, until early May. That’s when Obama came out in support of marriage equality. Again, Obama’s words do not come with pending legislation – in this case, he believes that states have the right to decide on the issue. Still, the position is notable.
Where the Obama Administration Disappoints
Of course, just because the Obama administration has helped make remarkable strides for LGBT equality, that doesn’t mean everything has worked out well.
The most notable failure in regards to LGBT issues during the Obama administration is easily the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Or, more specifically, the failure to pass ENDA.
As a proposed bill, ENDA has been proposed in every Congress since 1994, save the 109th Congress. For a variety of reasons, the bill has never been enacted into law. More recently, though, activists have pressured President Obama to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT individuals who work for federal contractors. Amongst those pressuring Obama were all four openly gay members of Congress. While not as encompassing as ENDA, which would cover public and private employment, an executive order would at least protect individuals employed by groups working for the government.
The lack of movement on ENDA is not limited to one party, it’s worth noting. While many Republicans are opposed to ENDA, some Democrats have also avoided the act; otherwise, the bill could have theoretically been signed into law during the first few years of the Obama administration, when Democrats held control of both houses of Congress as well as the presidency.
Separately, there’s the issue of Obama’s stance on marriage equality. While Obama supports same-sex marriage, his position on letting states decide on an individual basis is disheartening to people in states where same-sex marriage is constitutionally banned, such as in North Carolina, where Amendment One passed the day before Obama’s announcement. An increasing number of Democrats in Congress are starting to get behind a push for marriage equality on the national level, and one wonders if Obama should get on board with the plan.
Looking Beyond 2012
As the 2012 presidential election looms ever larger over the political horizon, it’s important to assess the state of LGBT political issues, as well as what the community stands to gain or lose depending on the outcome of the election.
With DADT officially no longer an issue, and with marriage equality slowly but surely becoming more of a mainstream idea, the primary topics that LGBT activists appear to be focusing on are the repeal of DOMA and the enactment of ENDA, both of which still require significant long-term work. That’s on top of lower-profile issues, including a number of issues that deal specifically with the trans community, such as ease in legally changing identified gender.
With the strides in progress made over the last four years, it may feel safe to assume that progress would continue under a second term for President Obama. That very well may be the case. While he failed to enact an executive order related to the topic, Obama is in support of an inclusive ENDA. Additionally, Obama has singled out DOMA as a target for repeal in a second term.
This stands in stark contrast to Obama’s main opponent in November, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Romney is one of several candidates from the Republican primary who signed a pledge from the National Organization for Marriage that called for a Federal Marriage Amendment, which would override states that currently endorse same-sex marriage. Romney is also opposed to civil unions in place of same-sex marriage, though he supports some domestic partnership benefits.
Of course, selecting a candidate should encompass more than their stance on LGBT issues. Within the community, this area is commonly filled with members of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud, among other groups. As of press time, neither group has endorsed Romney.
Regardless of political affiliation, though, with more rights being afforded to the LGBT community, it’s up to the community at large to continue pressing for our rights.