19 ways Barack Obama changed the world on LGBT rights
With Barack Obama coming to the end of his Presidency, it’s easy to forget the incredible number of ways the Democrat flipped the conversation on LGBT rights in just eight years.
Ending the Republican-dominated Bush era of politics which saw LGBT people pushed to the margins, across eight years the Democrat has changed the paradigm again and again, often in spite of a hostlie Congress
As the end of his Presidency approaches, we take a look back at his range of achievements, which undoubtedly make him the most progressive LGBT ally to ever hold the office of President.
1. Signing a federal hate crime law
The 1998 homophobic murder of gay Wyoming resident Matt Shepard sparked national and international outcry.
Though Matt Shepard was murdered for being gay, no hate crime charge could be brought, as state law did not ban hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The case led Matthew’s parents Judy and Dennis Shepard to set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation, campaigning for protections in their son’s memory.
It was not until President Obama took office in 2009 that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named in honour of both Shepard and an African-American murdered by white supremacists, was finally made law.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in October 2009, added federal-level hate crime protections for crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Under the law, people who commit hate crimes anywhere in the US can face a federal charge, even if their state has no hate crime law.
2. Overturning ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’
Signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a poor compromise intended to prohibit military personnel from ‘hunting’ and discriminating against gay soldiers, but also made it an offence to be openly gay in the military. The law, which saw hundreds of soldiers sacked for being gay, was defended by George W Bush’s administration.
In spite of protests from military officials, President Obama signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, permitting gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve openly in the military for the first time.
3. Appointing a string of openly LGBT ambassadors and officials
Prior to the Obama Presidency, there were no openly gay ambassadors, and very few senior government officials who identified as LGBT.
Democratic President Barack Obama has sought to counter the lack of representation by appointing a string of gay ambassadors to represent the US around the world.
Among gay ambassadors appointed by President Obama are Ted Osius (Vietnam), Rufus Gifford (Denmark), John Berry (Australia), Daniel Baer (Austria), James Costos (Spain), and Wally Brewster (Dominican Republic).
Under his Presidency, LGBT people have also taken leading roles in the White House, from US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith to public engagement official Monique Dorsainvil. He also appointed a trans woman, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan as the top liaison to the LGBT community.
4. Defending the rights of LGBT people fleeing persecution
In 2011, President Obama issued a memorandum instructing government agencies for the first time to consider gay rights when deciding aid and asylum cases, to combat criminalization, protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.
His administration affirmed: “The struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights.
“I am deeply concerned by the violence and discrimination targeting LGBT persons around the world whether it is passing laws that criminalize LGBT status, beating citizens simply for joining peaceful LGBT pride celebrations, or killing men, women, and children for their perceived sexual orientation.
“Under my Administration, agencies engaged abroad have already begun taking action to promote the fundamental human rights of LGBT persons everywhere. Our deep commitment to advancing the human rights of all people is strengthened when we as the United States bring our tools to bear to vigorously advance this goal.”
5. Overseeing a State Department that defends equality around the world
Under President Obama’s two successive Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, the US has pursued a policy of reform on LGBT issues around the world, actively lobbying countries to repeal anti-LGBT laws and respect LGBT rights globally,.
His two successive UN Ambassadors Susan Rice and Samantha Power, have also battled for recognition on LGBT rights globally in the United Nations.
In a landmark 2011 speech to the UN representing the US government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told world leaders: “Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world.
“They are all ages, all races, all faiths, they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes.
“Whether we know it, whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends and our neighbours.
“Being gay is not a western invention, it is a human reality.”
6. Ensuring healthcare coverage doesn’t discriminate against LGBT people or people with HIV
Signed into law in 2010, the Affordable Care Act revolutionised the approach to healthcare in the US, and provided new protections for LGBT people.
The ACA allowed many gay and lesbian families the chance to recieve a family insurance plan for the first time, under provisions recognising same-sex unions.
The Act made it far easier for people living with HIV/AIDS to get coverage, through the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plans, tackling discrimination in the healthcare system against people who are HIV positive.
7. Helping bring down the Defence of Marriage Act
The 1996 law, known as DOMA defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman – barring same-sex married couples from being recognised as “spouses” for purposes of federal laws.
The law was partly thrown out in 2013 case United States v Windsor, when the Supreme Court justices ruled the law unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
The case was granted a massive boost by the decision of the Obama administration, arguing on behalf of the United States, to take the position that DOMA was unconstitutional.
Obama’s Supreme Court picks, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, tipped the 5-4 split ruling in favour of LGBT rights.
8. Banning anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors
Across his Presidency, Obama has consistently backed the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act and Equality Act, Democratic bills that would have outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in all 50 states.
However, as a hostile Republican majority have prevented the bills from becoming law, in 2014 Obama took the issue into his own hands, using his executive powers to provide the most protections he could.
The order prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by all federal contractors, providing crucial protections for the first time not only to government employees, but to those working in companies with federal contracts.
9. Helping bring about equal marriage
The Obama administration consistently fielded amicus briefs against bans on same-sex marriage, providing invaluable support for equality activists challenges their state governments.
As the issue reached the Supreme Court, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder filed a brief arguing for the court to rule that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.
After the ruling in June 2015, the President said: “The Supreme Court recognised that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality.
“In doing so, they’ve reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law. That all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they are or who they love.
“This decision will end the patchwork system we currently have. It will end the uncertainty hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples face from not knowing whether their marriage, legitimate in the eyes of one state, will remain if they decide to move [to] or even visit another.
“This ruling will strengthen all of our communities by offering to all loving same-sex couples the dignity of marriage across this great land.”
10. Lighting up the White House as a symbol of Pride
In what may become one of the defining symbols of his Presidency, the leader ordered the White House to be lit up in rainbow colours in celebration of the equal marriage ruling.
Announcing the move, he affirmed: “Today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we’ve made our union a little more perfect. “
11. Appointing an LGBT rights envoy
In 2015, the President created the role US Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, appointing gay diplomat Randy Berry to the role to allow him to dedicate his time to fighting anti-LGBT legislation around the world.
Berry has dived into the role head-first, making contacts across the world in order to try and further the cause of LGBT rights.
The envoy told PinkNews: “Just by being able to have those conversations, to very consistently have an ability to project those talking points and we’ve seen great receptivity.
“We have to make it very, very clear where we stand on these issues. It’s not to dictate terms; it’s not to dangle carrots or threaten with sticks, but just to have a very clear conversation on the human rights aspect.”
12. Challenging anti-gay world leaders to their face
Speaking on a trip to Africa, the President warned Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta that gay people must be treated equally under the law in a joint press conference.
In front of the world media, Obama told the leader to his face: “I believe in the principle of treating people equally under the law, and that they are deserving of equal protection under the law, and the state should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation
“I say that recognising that there may be people with different religious or cultural beliefs – but the question is how does the state operate, relative to people?
“If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating differently because they’re different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode and bad things happen.”
“When a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. As an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of the history of what happens when people are treated differently under the law.”
13. Holding countless White House LGBT receptions
The President has shown he is unafraid to personally engage with activists on any number of issues, from equal marriage to transgender equality.
Most recently he held a transgender movie night at the White House, screening The Danish Girl and an episode of Transparent to an audience of trans activists.
The event was part of the ‘White House LGBT Artists Champions of Change’ series – a programme recognising the achievements of activists on a range of issues.
14. Never forgetting to mark Pride Month and World AIDS Day
The President has issued annual proclamations celebrating both June’s Pride season and December 1 as World AIDS Day.
In his final proclamation this year, he said: “Our commitment to combatting discrimination against the LGBT community does not stop at our borders: Advancing the fair treatment of all people has long been a cornerstone of American diplomacy, and we have made defending and promoting the human rights of LGBT individuals a priority in our engagement across the globe.
“In line with America’s commitment to the notion that all people should be treated fairly and with respect, champions of this cause at home and abroad are upholding the simple truth that LGBT rights are human rights.”
15. Issuing a directive to protect transgender students
Obama acted to defend transgender students in schools from a Republican-backed ‘bathroom war’.
Under his orders the federal government wrote to every school in the nation on the issue, advising educators to take steps to ensure trans students are catered for and not discriminated against.
The letter affirms: “When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
16. Leading a nation in mourning after the Pulse tragedy.
Not everything that has happened to LGBT people under the Obama Presidency has been positive, and the slaughter of 50 people in an Orlando gay bar will stand as one of the darkest events in our recent history.
The President led the nation with dignity and composure following the attack, spending time in Orlando to visit survivors, emergency workers, and the families of victims.
Speaking in Orlando he said: “This was an attack on the LGBT community. Americans were targeted because we’re a country that has learned to welcome everyone, no matter who you are or who you love. And hatred towards people because of sexual orientation, regardless of where it comes from, is a betrayal of what’s best in us.
“Joe [Biden] and I were talking on the way over here — you can’t make up the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and denigrate and express hatred towards groups because of the color of their skin, or their faith, or their sexual orientation, and not feed something very dangerous in this world.
“So if there was ever a moment for all of us to reflect and reaffirm our most basic beliefs that everybody counts and everybody has dignity, now is the time. It’s a good time for all of us to reflect on how we treat each other, and to insist on respect and equality for every human being.
17. Naming the first every openly gay head of the Army
The President nominated accomplished Defence worker Eric Fanning to become the 22nd Secretary of the Army, just six years after out soldiers were welcomed for the first time.
Fanning has more than a decade of experience, holding Army, Navy, and Air Force positions in the Department of Defence, serving in a number of high-ranking roles before his current high-profile assignment.
Barack Obama said of Mr Fanning previously: “Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role.
“I am grateful for his commitment to our men and women in uniform, and I am confident he will help lead America’s Soldiers with distinction.
18. Making the Stonewall Inn a national monument
Earlier this year, Obama designated New York’s iconic Stonewall Inn as a national monument.
The gay bar and the surrounding streets are the sites of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, which is often considered the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement.
The President explained: “I’m designating the Stonewall National Monument as the newest addition to America’s national park system.
“I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country – the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us, that we are stronger together. That out of many, we are one.”
19. Recognising Ellen DeGeneres with a Congressional Medal of Freedom
In one of his last acts as President, Barack Obama chose to recognise out TV host and LGBT campaigner Ellen DeGeneres, presenting her an award in a special ceremony at the White House.
President Obama spoke of how her decision to come out and to be a role model for LGBT Americans had initially harmed her career, calling for people to recognise her convictions.
He said: “It’s easy to forget now, when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law, just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages almost 20 years ago.
“Just how important it was, not just to the LGBT community, but for all of us to see somebody so full of kindness and light, somebody we liked so much, somebody who could be our neighbor, or our colleague, or our sister, challenge our own assumptions.”