In President Barack Obama’s Jan. 21 inaugural address, he stated, “[O]ur journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” It was a speech indicative of his goals and values that reflected how he will proceed on numerous social issues, particularly gay rights. Regardless of how particular groups may feel about Obama’s effectiveness as a leader, it is irrefutable that his first presidential term yielded immense progress for the LGBT community.
The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States was the first step of many in reforming a government that has previously codified LGBT discrimination into law. Though Obama has been credited for some of his administration’s largest achievements regarding gay rights — such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — his first term as president resulted in changes to other laws that had been detrimental to LGBT equality.
He signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law Oct. 28, 2009, which qualifies actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability as characteristics protected by previously established hate-crime laws. HIV/AIDS patients, who had previously been banned from entering the United States, were granted entrance into the country when Obama lifted the travel ban at the beginning of 2010. And in June of the same year, he revised the Family and Medical Leave Act so that LGBT employees would be afforded family leave the same as their heterosexual counterparts.
Obama’s first term was not simply characterized by wishy-washy or quasi-implemented policies aimed at bolstering the LGBT vote when it came time for reelection. Not only did he consistently advocate gay rights throughout his term, but when the law was changed to reflect his ideals, he ensured that it was implemented properly and appropriately enforced. Obama’s first administration oversaw the declaration of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, and he vowed to cease legally recognizing its constitutionality.
President Obama’s first administration also helped to promote LGBT rights and equality through non-legislative avenues. In June 2009, the White House hosted the first-ever LGBT Pride Reception, and by October of that year he was responsible for the founding of the National Resource Center for LGBT Elders. Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor available for civilians, to Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King, enforcing the value of LGBT-rights advocacy in the community. The White House also assisted LGBT foster youth by giving the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center a grant in October 2010 so that the agency could continue to operate with greater funding and latitude. Obama participated in the “It Gets Better” project, delivering a message to LGBT youth that they are not alone in their struggles, and that they have advocates and supporters both inside and outside of the White House.
It is reasonable to expect that with his second term, Obama will be even more heedful of the needs of the LGBT community, as more moderate policies are no longer crucial for the sake of reelection.
In fact, President Obama’s second term has already demonstrated a tendency towards positive, LGBT-friendly policy. His second administration is starting off strong with a momentous stance on marriage equality, as the Obama administration submitted amicus briefs in support of marriage equality in both the Windsor v. United States and Hollingsworth v. Perry cases, which challenge DOMA and Proposition 8, respectively. The president of the United States does not normally submit amicus briefs in cases where the federal government is not a party, yet Obama has still chosen to firmly urge the Supreme Court justices to rule against California’s ban on gay marriage.
The past four years have yielded extraordinary progress for the LGBT community under President Obama’s first administration, though there is still considerable change to be made. Rather than being content with the advances for gay rights thus far, it is imperative that the public uses these developments as fuel for further advocacy and policy change. With a concerted effort over the next four years that matches that of the first four years, we will move closer to the goal of increasing equality for LGBT individuals everywhere.