Obama carries high LGBT expectations in 2nd term

Gay Pride FlagBy Irene Morse

President Obama’s second inaugural address was historic for the LGBT community.

He referenced the Stonewall riots of 1969 as a civil rights movement, and he reiterated his belief that all love is equal and ought to be treated as such under the law. He became the first president to say the word “gay” in an inaugural address. And in addition to the speech, Richard Blanco became the first openly gay poet to read at a presidential inauguration.

This acknowledgment of the LGBT community and the civil rights issues they face seemed to signal that these issues would be a priority for Obama in his second term, leaving members of that community enthused about the next four years.

The LGBT community is often characterized as having a love affair with Obama, and perhaps rightfully so. It’s certainly true that he has been the most active president in American history when it comes to LGBT issues.

In May he became the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage, stating that his views on the issue had “evolved.” But even more significant was his leadership in the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited openly gay soldiers from serving in the military. There is a general sense that President Obama supports gay rights and is in step with the American people, who also increasingly support gay marriage and other gay rights efforts.

But thanks to the current momentum for the LGBT community, it is easy to forget that taking action on these issues comes at a political cost. While Republicans are moving away from anti-gay rhetoric, it is undeniable that there are still powerful elements of the party that intend to fight gay rights legislation at all costs. This opposition is becoming more subtle as those who speak out against gay rights face backlash from their constituencies and advocacy groups. Now rather than become a capstone of the party’s congressional agenda, it is likely to become one of the many chess pieces that the Republicans use in the shadowboxing that occurs with the passage of any major piece of legislation.

In a way, it is a positive change that pointed, anti-gay legislation can no longer be feasibly passed by Congress. But on the other hand, it is harder to condemn anti-gay measures when they are tacked onto more important legislation as a condition of its passage.

For example, with outright anti-gay bills, opponents can protest, call representatives and rely on the Senate or the president to halt legislation. But with those measures tacked onto, say, comprehensive immigration reform, people find themselves in the catch-22 of passing the whole package or witnessing the total failure of long-coveted legislation.

Ideally for his supporters, Obama will be able to take action on several relevant pieces of legislation during his second term. The most obvious is gay marriage and the potential repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign have urged the president to file an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court related to that case, indicating his support for gay marriage. However, so far the president has ignored these requests, perhaps out of hesitance to meddle in another branch of government.

In addition to DOMA, Congress may take action on the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). In 29 states, a person can legally be fired from their job if their employer discovers they are gay, and transgender individuals can be fired solely because of their gender identity or expression in 34 states. But ENDA is a much more politically contentious issue that affects the business world and is less popular among the American people.

The question then is whether Obama will exercise leadership on these issues, or whether he will trust popular opinion and protest efforts to eventually correct injustices to the LGBT community without significant help from the executive branch. While Obama has given lip service to major gay rights issues such as gay marriage, above all he is a political strategist. And as a politician, he may easily choose to sacrifice LGBT issues in favor of more historic legislation. Being known as the president who passed comprehensive immigration reform is more sexy than being known as the president who added another clause to ENDA.

As Obama begins his second term, legacy issues will become highly relevant to his presidency. And he may well leave LGBT issues for a future president to address.

Many hope that this will not be the case. And while compromise is sometimes necessary for legislation to pass, Obama has proved unwilling to compromise before on important social issues, such as access to contraception. Perhaps gay rights will become another such issue, and he’ll be deft enough to pass major legislation without giving up the chess piece that is LGBT rights within the negotiation process.

As public sentiment continues to coalesce on this issue, Republicans may abandon their efforts all together and attempt to marginalize members of Congress who still want to pursue anti-gay legislation. But for now it is best to keep blind optimism in check, as there is only so much that a president can do in four years.

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Posted by on January 23, 2013. Filed under LGBT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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