A black person being elected President of the United States is something many people never thought would happen. I was one of them on November 4, 2008.
And then, Obama did it.
As a black queer man, I saw a radical future where black people who live at the intersection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) identities didn’t have to constantly fight to be heard or for a seat at the table.
Though that dream has yet to be fully realized, we are one step closer, even if it is infinitesimal, than we were before. Nonetheless, it is important to be honest about just how tumultuous President Obama’s relationship has been with members of the LGBTQ community since 2008.
Anyone who has followed Obama’s previous LGTBQ rights’ statements can easily point out his evolved feelings about his responsibility to us over the last several years. With that, it is critical to understand that what is evolution to some can be flip-flopping for political convenience to others. Both are right. Historically, until Obama was “outed” by Vice President Biden, his national political career indicated he was opposed to same-sex marriage and accepting of limits on gays and lesbians serving in the military.
And, in 2015, while he could have ensured Jennicet Gutiérrez, a trans rights advocate and activist, didn’t get kicked out of his White House event honoring LGBTQ people, he failed to listen to her concerns when she dared to interrupt him.
Just last year, Gutiérrez called out the irony of Obama and his administration for speaking of violence against trans women of color while also holding LGBTQ detainees, namely trans women, in detention, exposing them to more assault. She was and still is right.
But, despite the obvious up-and-downs and occasional setbacks of Obama’s presidency, one thing is clear: He has done more to advance the rights of LGBTQ people than any other president in U.S. history.
Much of the hope over the past decade has sadly started to dwindle after realizing Obama has to acquiesce to a white institution — Congress — that causes our interests as activists and advocates to be de-centered. And, eight years later, that hope nearly disappeared when this same country elected Donald J. Trump to replace him, causing further relegation of black and brown people; a ‘whitelash’ against Obama, for sure.
There are several names that we can call President-elect Trump, but progressive isn’t one of them. Even one month after the biggest upset in U.S. political history — over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Trump being the “leader of the free world” is still a difficult pill to swallow. What doesn’t surprise me is that he was elected. For black people across the country, we know that America has a tendency of underestimating its disgustingly vitriolic past and present. What does surprise me is just how little we can expect from his leadership in advancing LGBTQ rights.
Although Trump doesn’t have much of a policy or legislative history for or against LGBTQ rights, Vice President-elect Mike Pence certainly does. Pence has been a strong opponent of LGBTQ rights, both as a congressional member and governor of Indiana, and approved a reference to conversion therapy in the 2016 Republican Party platform. Conversion therapy has been condemned by a range of individuals and groups, including Obama, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association. It is a process that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity, oftentimes including physical abuse like electroshock treatment.
Unlike Trump and Pence, in 2015, Obama rightfully called for an end to conversion therapy of LGBTQ individuals, particularly among young people. And, if this wasn’t bad enough, Pence wanted to divert HIV prevention funds from the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act to pay for conversion therapy. In 2000, Pence wanted to ensure that “federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.” So, where should the money go? “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” This is conversion therapy — and it is dangerous.
As Governor of Indiana, Pence signed a bill that would make it a felony and subsequently jail same-sex couples who applied for a marriage license. To not single out LGBTQ individuals specifically, he also determined that it would be best to jail clerks who handed those licenses out.
This horrid history of Trump/Pence rightfully frightens people. Our memories won’t allow us to forget how many years it took Obama to “fix” the errors of President Bush, especially in a Republican-controlled and white-dominated Congress. We therefore understand that one stroke of a pen could undo many progressive policies Obama passed to benefit the lives of many LBGTQ people. This, and many other reasons, is why people are alarmed about what will happen to the health and rights of LGBTQ people now that Obama will no longer be in office starting next month.
Let’s be clear: There is much discrimination and violence occurring both within and outside of the LGBTQ community.
This year alone has been the deadliest year on record for trans people ever. The majority of reported LGBTQ people killed by hate violence last year were black trans women. The exact numbers, however, are complex, because the FBI did not start publishing and reporting statistics on bias-motivated hate crimes against trans and gender-nonconforming people until 2014. But we do know that black trans women experience violence, which is compounded because of the multiplicities of their experiences — from racism to transphobia to unemployment and underemployment to poverty.
It’s tough to recognize the violence faced by LGBTQ people globally while also being pleased with the policies passed by Obama. Lately, however, it has become necessary to sit with this tension, and sadly, it’s because I know things will likely get worse for LGBTQ people all over the country because of the next administration.
In his first term, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, or Shepard-Byrd Act, into law, saying that the bill was meant to “help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray.” This measure expanded federal law to include bias-motivated hate crimes based on a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Despite these legal protections, however, LGBTQ people — particularly black transgender women and gender-nonconforming gay men — are still victimized, persecuted and murdered at alarming rates seven years later.
In early 2011, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would no longer defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), legislation that stated marriage was between one man and one woman, against equal protection challenges brought by same-sex couples married under state law.
That same year, Obama noted, “every single American – gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – every single American deserves to be treated equally in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our society. It’s a pretty simple proposition.”
Unlike other presidents before him, the Obama administration has made historic strides to advance equality among LGBTQ people and communities. Obama’s major legislative achievements include repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which allowed lesbian, gay and bisexual service members to serve openly in our Armed Forces and without fear of losing their jobs for who they are and who they love.
Obama has also expanded access to health coverage, has ensured equality for LGBTQ federal government contractors by signing Executive Order 11246 prohibiting discrimination, and has developed and implemented a national HIV strategy. While President Obama is far from perfect, and his relationship to the LGBTQ community can be fairly critiqued, at this point in his legacy, him being the best president for LGBTQ rights cannot be underscored enough.
It may be sad in a sense that we have to celebrate this as a feat, but celebrate we should.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist and policy nerd. He has written for the Atlantic, The Root, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, Hello Beautiful and Think Progress. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.