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This is the gay man Barack Obama credits with changing the way he thinks about LGBT+ rights

Matilda Davies December 25, 2020

Barack Obama, graduate of Harvard Law School '91, is photographed on campus after was named head of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. (Photo by Joe Wrinn/Harvard University/Corbis via Getty Images)

Barack Obama has been frank about the fact that his position on LGBT+ rights has evolved throughout his career, but there’s one man who he credits with inspiring him to become a better ally at the tender age of 18.

In his new memoir A Promised Land, the 44th president of the United States confessed that as a teenager he and his friends “sometimes threw around words like ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ at each other as casual put-downs – callow attempts to fortify our masculinity and hide our insecurities”.

“Once I got to college and became friends with fellow students and professors who were openly gay, though, I realised the overt discrimination and hate they were subject to, as well as the loneliness and self-doubt that the dominant culture imposed on them. I felt ashamed of my past behaviour – and learned to do better,” he wrote.

One of those professors was Dr Lawrence Goldyn, who taught Obama European politics class LA’s Occidental College.

“I took his class freshman year at Occidental. I was probably 18 years old – Lawrence was one of the younger professors – and we became good friends,” Obama said in a 2015 interview with Out magazine.

“He went out of his way to advise lesbian, gay, and transgender students at Occidental, and keep in mind, this was 1978. That took a lot of courage, a lot of confidence in who you are and what you stand for.”

He fondly remembered seeing Lawrence at the White House’s Pride Month reception, adding: “I got to recognise Lawrence… and thank him for influencing the way I think about so many of these issues.”

In a separate interview, Obama said Dr Goldyn was “the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with”. He credited him, along with his own mother, as the two people who had influenced his attitudes towards LGBT+ people.

“And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time, but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues,” he added.

Dr Goldyn is now a physician treating HIV and AIDS patients in Fort Bragg, California.

In a rare interview with Buzzfeed News, Dr Goldyn said he wasn’t aware of the impact he had had on his former student.

He found the interview when he Googled himself and found Obama’s Out interview. He said: “I had no idea.

“Imagine what that’s like to somebody who left teaching, to learn how much of an impact you had on that student.”

Obama put his evolved beliefs into practise as president, repealing the ban on openly gay soldiers in the US military, using executive powers to enforce LGBT+ non-discrimination protections for federal contractors, passing a federal hate crimes law in honour of murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard, and nominating two pro-LGBT+ Supreme Court justices who helped tip the balance in favour of marriage equality.

He reflected in A Promised Land: “Alongside abortion, guns, and just about anything to do with race, the issues of LGBTQ rights and immigration had occupied centre stage in America’s culture wars for decades, in part because they raised the most basic question in our democracy – namely, who do we consider a true member of the American family, deserving of the same rights, respect, and concern that we expect for ourselves?

“I believed in defining that family broadly – it included gay people as well as straight, and it included immigrant families that had put down roots and raised kids here, even if they hadn’t come through the front door. How could I believe otherwise, when some of the same arguments for their exclusion had so often been used to exclude those who looked like me?”

More: ally of the year, Barack Obama, lawrence goldyn, LGBT white house reception, occidental college, out magazine, White House

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