Obama’s LGBT Support a Stark Contrast to Past Presidents
At the beginning of July, President Barack Obama invited LGBT community leaders, advocates and allies to a special event at the White House to celebrate the close of LGBT pride month.
Obama spoke to the crowd about his commitment to advancing LGBT rights and highlighted some recent and noteworthy victories. During his presidency thus far, Obama has:
- Signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law—the first federal civil rights legislation to protect sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to require all hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid funding to allow full visitation rights for LGBT patients and their partners.
- Released the first ever nation-wide HIV/AIDS strategy with specific goals for reducing new HIV infections, increasing access to care for people living with HIV, improving health outcomes for people living with HIV, and reducing HIV-related health disparities to be met by 2015.
- Lifted a travel ban that had been in place since 1987, which prohibited HIV-positive travelers and immigrants from entering the United States.
- Signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act.
- Directed his administration to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts, calling it discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Past presidents have rarely put LGBT rights on any kind of agenda. In fact, under pressure from President Ronald Reagan in 1987, the U.S. Public Health Service added AIDS to the list of dangerous and contagious diseases that prohibit travelers or immigrants from entering the United States. At the time, the PHS stated that the addition of AIDS to the list was not based on any new scientific knowledge and that “AIDS is not spread by casual contact which is the usual public concept of contagious.” In the 1990s, activists tried to have the PHS list rewritten, but challenges to the ban ultimately failed.
Don’t ask, don’t tell emerged in 1993 as a compromise solution when the President Bill Clinton encountered resistance in Congress to his campaign promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. Legal challenges to DADT have been made more than once, and the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which repeals DADT, had also been introduced more than once. In 1996, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which federally defines marriage as between a man and a woman. At the time, Clinton stated that he was opposed to same-sex marriage, but has since amended his opinion.
In making LGBT rights an important issue on the agenda, Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT research and communications projects at Campus Progress's umbrella organization, the Center for American Progress, says “President Obama and his administration have been engaged on LGBT issues like no other president has.”
Still, Krehely says, “Of course more needs to be done, because LGBT people have so much ground to make up after experiencing decades of discrimination, stigma, and bias—a lot of which is still alive and well in our country. But you can't deny that extraordinary progress has been made in the past 30 months.”
Krehely is especially impressed by Obama’s effort to make progress on LGBT issues that don’t often make the headlines, like “LGBT youth homelessness, sexual orientation and gender identity data collection, and health benefits for transgender military service veterans.”
It’s extraordinary to remember that only 24 years ago, our president refused to say the word “AIDS” in public. Now LGBT rights are a priority on the new president’s agenda. Hopefully there’s still much more to come.
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.