WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama claimed credit for his role in the progress made on LGBT issues in recent years In Time's Person of the Year interview — "bragging rights," one of his harshest critics told BuzzFeed, that the president had earned.
One of the things that I’m very proud of during my first four years is I think I’ve helped to solidify this incredibly rapid transformation in people’s attitudes around LGBT issues — how we think about gays and lesbians and transgender persons. A lot of that just has to do with the fact that if you talk to Malia, the idea of making an anti-gay remark at her school is just unimaginable. They just don’t get that. ...
For all the divisions that you read about in our politics — and many of them are real and powerful — the truth is, is that we have steadily become a more diverse and tolerant country that embraces people’s differences, and respects people who are not like us. And that’s a profoundly good thing. That’s one of the strengths of America. It was hard-fought. And there’s been the occasional backlash, and this is not to argue that somehow racism or sexism or homophobia are going to be eliminated or ever will be eliminated. It is to argue that our norms have changed in a way that prizes inclusion more than exclusion.
And I do think that my eight years as President, reflecting those values and giving voice to those values, helps to validate or solidify that transformation, and I think that’s a good thing for the country.
Early in his administration, however, Obama had faced criticism from LGBT advocates and activists, both for defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court challenges and for the pace of his action on ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
A brief filed in court on behalf of DOMA in June 2009 led to one of the more tense moments between Obama and one of his most steadfast supporters, the Human Rights Campaign. The then-president of the nation's largest LGBT rights group, Joe Solmonese, sent a letter to Obama expressing the group's strong disagreement with the filing.
Later, as the military's ban on out gay service was being debated in 2010, activists including Lt. Col. Dan Choi on several occasions handcuffed themselves to the gate in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, leading to their arrests. (Although other cases have been resolved, Choi continues contesting his arrest, claiming he has been the subject of vindictive prosecution and that his protest was constitutionally protected speech.)
In the time since the protests, however, the Obama administration reversed course on DOMA in February 2011 and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" formally was taken off the books in September 2011 after late 2010 passage of a repeal bill. Obama's "evolution" in May on marriage equality was another move that helped cement support both from the overwhelming number of LGBT voters — but also from high-dollar gay and lesbian donors and bundlers — in this year's election.
John Aravosis, who had regularly criticized Obama on those LGBT issues and more at AmericaBlog and elsewhere, defended the president's claims, telling BuzzFeed, "The President's comments on marriage were incredibly helpful, in particular, and may have helped us change minds in the black community prior to the various gay marriage votes last month. I'm the first to hold the President accountable on our issues, and while it took some effort to get him to move on our issues during his first term, in the end he did, and he did in a big way. And it's made a difference."
HRC, which had strongly backed Obama's re-election and endorsed him before the Republican Party even began voting for its nominee, went so far as to say Obama had become LGBT people's "ally-in-chief."
"The president certainly has led the way in helping to change hearts and minds on LGBT issues. The way he articulated his marriage equality evolution mirrors the experience of many Americans and gave more people the space to go on the same journey," HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz told BuzzFeed. "His signing of the hate crimes law and DADT repeal, as well as a consistent inclusion of our community in the priorities of his administration, make him our ally-in-chief."
Asked if Obama's actions had justified such comments, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's executive director, Rea Carey, responded simply, "Yes."
Aravosis, though, already was looking ahead, writing, "He's earned bragging rights for his first term. Now let's see him earn them for his second as well."
Looking forward, Obama also was asked in the Time interview about the administration's involvement in the two marriage-related Supreme Court cases: one challenging DOMA and the other challenging California's amendment banning gay couples from marrying, Proposition 8.
Although Obama and his administration are on record and have been in court opposing DOMA, Obama has faced some pressure from advocates to take a position on the Proposition 8 case — something he has not yet done. In the interview with Time's Richard Stengel, Michael Scherer and Radhika Jones, he said:
We are looking at the cases right now. I’ve already been very clear about DOMA, so there is no doubt that we would continue the position we’re on, that DOMA is unconstitutional and should be struck down. And I think the Prop-8 case, because the briefs are still being written, I should probably be careful about making any specific comments on it.
Should it decide to do so, the administration would not likely need to file a brief in support of the same-sex couples suing to have Proposition 8 struck down as unconstitutional until late February.
As Obama begins his second term, he also faces pressure from advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to issue an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees. Obama declined to do so in April, and White House press secretary Jay Carney reiterated that view earlier this month.
Chris Geidner is a Supreme Court correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.