Five Facts About How The White House Talks About LGBT Issues
... and more takeaways from an analysis of more than 5,000 briefings by BuzzFeed News.
The way the White House talks about LGBT issues reveals how much America's views have shifted and how far there is to go. BuzzFeed News analyzed more than 5,000 White House daily press briefings since 1993. Here are the big takeaways:
1. White House officials have never said “transgender” or “bisexual” during a press briefing.
Reporters have used the term "transgender" 15 times in press-briefing questions — all during the Obama administration — but officials have shied away. Instead, they've tended to rephrase "transgender" as "LGBT." Obama isn't entirely allergic to the phrase; outside of press briefings, he's used it at least once. In August, 2013, he told late night host Jay Leno, "I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them."
2. In press briefings, the Bush administration never — not once — used the word “lesbian.”
While both the Obama and Clinton administrations have used the word "lesbian," it was never used by a briefer during the Bush administration. The press used the word "lesbian" nine times in questions, but the administration would not bite. Here's one such exchange between Tony Snow and a reporter in Dec. 2006 about former Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary Cheney:
Q: Tony, in an interview with People Magazine, the President was asked about Mary Cheney's pregnancy, and said he's confident — he believes she'll be a loving soul to her child. In the past, he said that he believes the ideal is that a child be raised in a married family with a man and a woman. Does he still believe that's the ideal?
MR. SNOW: Yes, he does, but he also believes that every human life is sacred and that every child that comes into the world deserves love. And he believes that Mary Cheney's child will, in fact, have loving parents.
Q: Does he believe that children who are raised by gay and lesbian parents are at a disadvantage?
MR. SNOW: He does not make comments on that, and nor will I.
The Clinton administration said "lesbian" in press briefings a total of 24 times. The Obama administration has said it 10 times, though they've moved towards the more-inclusive "LGBT." This chart shows the use of both phrasings since 1993:
3. “Homosexual” may never appear in a briefing again.
White House vocabulary has caught up with mainstream vocabulary. Since 1993, White House officials have used the term "homosexual" just once during press briefings. That distinction belongs to Ari Fleischer, who in response to an April 25, 2003 question relating to the Supreme Court's pending decision in Lawrence v. Texas, said:
"The President has always said that when it comes to legal matters, that it's a question of different groups, homosexual groups, gay groups should not have special rights or special privileges."
Here's a video of that back-and-forth — perhaps the last time the word will ever be uttered in a White House press briefing:
"Homosexuality" continues to make sporadic appearances. The latest was said by Jay Carney on Feb. 24, 2014 in response to a question about Uganda criminalizing homosexuality.
4. The acronym “LGBT” was first said in a White House press briefing in June 2009.
During his June 26, 2009 briefing, Robert Gibbs told reporters, "On Monday the President will meet with President Uribe of Colombia here at the White House. He will attend an event at the White House recognizing and celebrating the accomplishments of LGBT Americans. Invited guests include families, volunteers, activists, and community leaders." It was the first time a White House official had ever used the initialism in a press briefing. The term saw a spike in usage in 2012, when Joe Biden and Obama endorsed same-sex marriage.
5. The anti-same-sex marriage rhetoric of 2004 has died down.
In early 2004, Massachusetts was on its way to becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and President Bush was deep into his re-election bid. The language White House officials used frequently in press briefings that year is revealing:
- "Sanctity of marriage being between a man and a woman"
"The President strongly supports the sanctity of marriage. He believes strongly in the sanctity of marriage being between a man and a woman. And the President has made it very clear that he will do what is necessary to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage." — Scott McClellan, Jan. 14, 2004
- "Activist judges"
"If activist judges continue to try to redefine marriage without regard for the voice of the people, then the only alternative would be the constitutional process. And the President has made it clear that, if necessary, he will do what is legally needed to protect the sanctity of marriage." — Scott McClellan, Feb. 9, 2004
"And the President is committed to doing what is legally necessary to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage. He has called these recent events that you bring up, "troubling," and he has said that they are influencing the way he is looking at this. We've been looking at this issue very closely and taking a very deliberate look at it because he is strongly committed to protecting this sacred institution." — Scott McClellan, Feb. 20, 2004
- "An enduring institution" (in reference to opposite-sex marriage)
"People have the right to live their lives as they choose, but that does not mean that they should redefine an enduring institution, like marriage, for others." — Scott McClellan, Aug. 25, 2004
The language used to talk about same-sex marriage is not nearly as rhetorical from the Obama administration. No briefing has ever referred to same-sex marriage as "troubling" or the end of an "enduring institution." Instead Obama administration briefings tend to talk about "support," "progress," and granting "rights" to every citizen.