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Obama's LGBT Rights Speech: Promise by Promise

By October 16, 2009

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Last Saturday, President Obama delivered what may have been the first significant presidential speech on gay rights in U.S. history. In it, he made some promises--some of which he can probably keep, some of which he probably can't.

The Hate Crimes Bill
In May, I met with Judy [Shepard] -- who's here tonight with her husband -- I met her in the Oval Office, and I promised her that we were going to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill -- a bill named for her son. (Applause.)

This struggle has been long. Time and again we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed. But the Shepards never gave up. (Applause.) They turned tragedy into an unshakeable commitment. (Applause.) Countless activists and organizers never gave up. You held vigils, you spoke out, year after year, Congress after Congress. The House passed the bill again this week. (Applause.) And I can announce that after more than a decade, this bill is set to pass and I will sign it into law. (Applause.)
Will it happen? The Matthew Shepard Act passed the U.S. House by a surprising margin (249-175) in April, and it currently has 45 cosponsors in the U.S. Senate, including Republican senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (which precludes the already-remote possibility of a filibuster). I would say that this one is probably in the bag, and that the Matthew Shepard Act will indeed be signed into law by the end of the year.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)
But we know there's far more work to do. We're pushing hard to pass an inclusive employee non-discrimination bill. (Applause.) For the first time ever, an administration official testified in Congress in favor of this law. Nobody in America should be fired because they're gay, despite doing a great job and meeting their responsibilities. It's not fair. It's not right. We're going to put a stop to it. (Applause.) And it's for this reason that if any of my nominees are attacked not for what they believe but for who they are, I will not waver in my support, because I will not waver in my commitment to ending discrimination in all its forms. (Applause.)
Will it pass? The ENDA is currently tied up in committee in both chambers, but it enjoys strong support--187 cosponsors in the House, 42 cosponsors in the Senate (including Republican senators Collins and Snowe)--and would almost certainly pass if and when it finally comes to a floor vote. Whether it will during this session is anybody's guess.

HIV Status and Travel Restrictions
"We are rescinding the discriminatory ban on entry to the United States based on HIV status." (Applause.)
Will it happen? Yes, and soon; the relevant legislation passed last year, and the administration has already issued a memo to U.S. Customs employees indicating that the new rules are about to be enacted.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell
"So I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership, and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's my commitment to you." (Applause.)
The bill in question is H.R. 1283, and it has 182 cosponsors. No similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate (yet), so I wouldn't expect "don't ask, don't tell" to end this year, but assuming the balance of power in Congress does not change substantially next year, it's a likely first-term achievement for Obama.

Marriage Equality and Partnership Rights
"And I've called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and to pass the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act." (Applause.)
The Domestic Partnerships Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend domestic partner benefits to federal employees, has 123 cosponsors in the House but has not been introduced in the Senate. The bill repealing the Defense of Marriage Act has also been introduced in the House but not the Senate, and has 102 cosponsors. I would say that the odds that either bill will pass within the next year or two are probably slim.

Confronting Reality

So much criticism, including mine, has centered on the Obama administration's failure to make LGBT rights a priority agenda item. But President Obama has never vetoed an LGBT rights bill; the legislation on these issues has never reached his desk.

If you want to move LGBT rights forward, pressuring the administration alone will not do the job. Instead, why not get involved in LGBT rights activism in your local community and pressure your legislators--your senators, your U.S. House member--into cosponsoring more of these bills?

If it is to succeed, the LGBT rights movement must be a grassroots movement and it must be national. And it must apply pressure not only to the president, but to Congress as well.

Related: History of the American Gay Rights Movement


October 17, 2009 at 7:38 am
(1) Dr. Jillian T. Weiss says:

You incorrectly listed the number of co-sponsors for ENDA. It’s currently 186 and 41.

October 17, 2009 at 11:44 am
(2) Tm says:

This is just another example of how much damage this president can do in such a short amount of time. The Defense of Marriage Act was a common sense protector of people and should not be altered. And the military doesn’t need to be swept into the gay debate with some legislation forcing its hand. They are fighting a war and the policies in place now for gay Soldiers work. Don’t force upon gay Soldiers wha the majority of them they don’t want. I’m hoping with all my heart this president only gets one term. He’s scary.

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