Photography by Ryan Pfluger in the White House Library on October 5, 2015.
Yes, there’s work to be done — we are still waiting for Congress to pass comprehensive federal LGBT protections, for a start — but whichever way you look at it, this president and his administration have ushered extraordinary change into the lives of LGBT Americans. For someone who at first seemed coy, even awkward, on the subject, President Obama’s evolution on marriage equality has been something to behold. He came to office reiterating that marriage was an institution reserved for a man and a woman, and continued to hold that line throughout most of his first term, even while advancing other important legislation, including the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Other signal achievements included an order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, passage of the first federal LGBT law in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, encouraging the end to a ban on transgender military service, and the ongoing effort to create a more diverse judiciary. His nomination of Eric Fanning to be secretary of the Army, if successful, will make him the first openly gay head of a military branch.
Yet even as polls suggested that a growing majority of Americans supported same-sex unions, many of us were losing faith that the president would join their ranks. His public conversion, when it came on May 9, 2012, telegraphed just how far the country had moved, and was one that had the encouragement of two important women in his life: the first lady and his senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett. It took a few more years for the president to agree that marriage equality was a constitutional matter, rather than one left up to the states, but by November 2012, Americans were electing the nation’s first pro-gay marriage president. It was an extraordinary contrast to eight years earlier, when President Bush exploited fears of gay marriage to help secure a second term.
From that moment, the wind has been in our sails. Obama’s re-election was followed by two Supreme Court decisions in June 2013: United States v. Windsor, which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which led to the annulling of California’s Proposition 8. In March this year, as the Supreme Court prepared to hear arguments on Obergefell v. Hodges, lawyers for the Justice Department filed a brief arguing that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, likening them to prohibitions on interracial marriage.
When he was sworn in on January 20, 2009, there were two states where same-sex marriage was legal. Today it is a right nationwide. Many share credit for what has transpired, but there’s no question that without the active engagement of the 44th president of the United States, who has made securing the rights of LGBT Americans a fundamental part of his legacy, we’d still be working to fulfill that dream. On this issue, among many others, he is truly a great American.
An interview with the President
Aaron Hicklin: Mr. President, who was the first person you met who you knew was gay?
President Barack Obama: I’m not sure who the first openly gay person I met was, but Dr. Lawrence Goldyn, one of my college professors, is a man who stands out to me. I took his class freshman year at Occidental. I was probably 18 years old — Lawrence was one of the younger professors — and we became good friends. He went out of his way to advise lesbian, gay, and transgender students at Occidental, and keep in mind, this was 1978. That took a lot of courage, a lot of confidence in who you are and what you stand for. I got to recognize Lawrence last year at our Pride Month reception at the White House, and thank him for influencing the way I think about so many of these issues.
When was the moment that you realized that LGBT equality would be a key focus for your administration?
This really goes back to when I was a kid, because my mom instilled in me the strong belief that every person is of equal worth. At the same time, growing up as a black guy with a funny name, I was often reminded of exactly what it felt like to be on the outside. One of the reasons I got involved in politics was to help deliver on our promise that we’re all created equal, and that no one should be excluded from the American dream just because of who they are. That’s why, in the Senate, I supported repealing DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act]. It’s why, when I ran for president the first time, I publicly asked for the support of the LGBT community, and promised that we could bring about real change for LGBT Americans.
Watching Sasha and Malia grow up, are you conscious of a generational difference in their attitudes to homosexuality versus the generation(s) before them?
Absolutely. To Malia and Sasha and their friends, discrimination in any form against anyone doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t dawn on them that friends who are gay or friends’ parents who are same-sex couples should be treated differently than anyone else. That’s powerful. My sense is that a lot of parents across the country aren’t going to want to sit around the dinner table and try to justify to their kids why a gay teacher or a transgender best friend isn’t quite as equal as someone else. That’s also why it’s so important to end harmful practices like conversion therapy for young people and allow them to be who they are. The next generation is spurring change not just for future generations, but for my generation, too. As president, and as a dad, that makes me proud. It makes me hopeful.
When you were a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago in the 1980s, one of the principal issues was housing. Was the impact of AIDS and HIV a part of that?
In Chicago in the 1980s, as was the case across the country, Americans living with HIV/AIDS were unfairly evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs, and forced to face social, economic, and personal atrocities — which is to say nothing of the health problems they were dealing with. That’s one of the reasons that my administration developed the first-ever comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States. People living with HIV are benefiting from more effective collaboration across the federal government. By the way, they’re also benefiting from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which allows for funding increases and groundbreaking new work towards an AIDS-free generation.
In your 2013 inauguration speech you delighted the LGBT community by including Stonewall alongside Seneca Falls and Selma as a touchstone of America’s progressive history. Tell me about the decision to mention Stonewall in the speech.
Part of being American is having a responsibility to stand up for freedom — not just our own freedom, but for everybody’s freedom. Our individual stories come together to make one large American story. Just like Seneca Falls is part of the American story, and Selma is part of the American story, Stonewall is part of the American story, and I thought it was important to say so.
The Supreme Court decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, that the fundamental right to marry should be guaranteed to LGBT couples, was one you described as a “victory for America.” How confident were you that SCOTUS would vote the way it did?
Well, I try not to guess how the Supreme Court is going to rule. But even before the decision came down, one thing was clear: There had been a remarkable attitude shift — in hearts and minds — across America. The ruling reflected that. It reflected our values as a nation founded on the principle that we are all created equal. And, by the way, it was decades of our brothers and sisters fighting for recognition and equality — and too frequently risking their lives or facing rejection from family, friends, and co-workers — that got us to that moment. So I wasn’t surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, but, like millions of Americans, I was proud and happy that it came down the way it did — and I was honored to stand in the Rose Garden and reiterate for every American that we are strongest, that we are most free, when all of us are treated equally. I was proud to say that love is love.
What advice would you give to the Kim Davises of America who feel they are being forced to choose between the law and their conscience?
I am a man of faith and believe deeply in religious freedom, but at the end of the day, nobody is above the rule of law — especially someone who voluntarily takes an oath to uphold that law. That’s something we’ve got to respect.
In Kenya this year you likened the LGBT experience in Africa to the civil rights struggle of African-Americans in the U.S. Not everyone has been a fan of the comparison. Why do you think it’s valuable to tie these struggles together in this way?
I made that comparison because I think it’s an accurate one. As I said in Kenya, in a lot of ways what we’re talking about is equality under the law — that was a critical element of the civil rights movement in the United States, and that is an essential part of the struggle that LGBT people are facing around the world.
I think this is both a question of attitudes and a question of behavior. Accepting and embracing someone for who they are requires a change in attitude. And in the United States we’ve seen that change in attitude, in many hearts and minds, as more and more LGBT people are brave enough to come out and live their lives openly, and as their relatives and neighbors and co-workers realize that they know and like and love a member of the LGBT community.
The other part is behavior. Regardless of their personal views, we need to treat one another with a basic level of respect. And governments need to enforce the law, prosecute acts of violence, and protect the human rights of their citizens — all of their citizens — without discrimination.
I also think that it’s important for us to acknowledge our own history. In the United States we talk a lot about working to perfect our union. And there is a lot of work to be done with respect to civil rights in the United States — for African-Americans, LGBT people, for many others. When I travel around the world and speak to foreign audiences, I think it is helpful when I acknowledge our own shortcomings and speak honestly about our history and the lessons we’ve learned along the way instead of pretending that we have all the answers. I think it also helps build the trust and openness we need to work together as countries to meet a whole range of challenges.
We have lots of alliances with countries that do not respect LGBT rights, such as Saudi Arabia. How can the U.S. play a constructive role in challenging those regimes on their human rights record?
Promoting and protecting the human rights of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, is a fundamental part of our foreign policy and an element of our engagements with governments all over the world, including our close partners.
When we talk about LGBT issues, we emphasize the importance of universal human rights — the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly and the importance of non-violence, non-discrimination, and equality under the law — and those don’t change or go away just because someone is a member of the LGBT community. So, while some people try to claim that homosexuality doesn’t exist in their culture or that we are trying to impose “foreign” values, the truth is that LGBT people are members of all societies and the protection of human rights is a universal value.
How we deliver that message may change from country to country. Sometimes I do so in public speeches. Other times, we may do so in private, during meetings with foreign governments. Yes, it can make for some difficult conversations, but the United States will continue to raise our voice on behalf of universal human rights.
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