WASHINGTON – Which recent U.S. president has used the word “gay” most often in a public speech, statement or proclamation? And who used it the least, or not at all?
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, did some digging and found that President Barack Obama has used “gay” 272 times since taking office in 2009, far more than any of his recent predecessors: Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Only Clinton comes closest to Obama, having used “gay” 216 times during his two terms, says a new report from the advocacy group.
Of his total, Clinton used the word 46 times regarding gays in the military and 80 times when discussing Matthew Shepard or hate-crime legislation. Shepard was a gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998. His killing raised awareness about anti-gay violence and spurred efforts to enact hate-crimes laws in the U.S.
Neither George H.W. Bush nor Reagan used “gay” in any of their presidential remarks.
George W. Bush used it twice in a public speech or remark, including one in which he disavowed marriage equality. He issued no proclamations on the subject.
Obama also has used “lesbian,” ”gay,” ”bisexual” or “transgender” a total of 421 times, the report found, a linguistic feat that the Human Rights Campaign says has played a big part in the American public’s acceptance of LGBT people and marriage equality because of a president’s power to influence public opinion.
“Words matter an enormous amount, and when President Obama uses his platform to declare that LGBT people are just as American as anyone else, it has a huge and historic effect,” said Chad Griffin, the organization’s president. “Evidence suggests that when people know us, they don’t want to discriminate against us.”
Society also has evolved in the more than three decades since Reagan first took office in 1981.
Gay rights advocates fought long and hard for their victories, increasing numbers of LGBT people have come out of the closet to share their stories, and more and more Americans say they know someone who is gay. Victories also are being won at the ballot boxes and in the courts.
Just this week, gay marriage moved closer to gaining its first foothold in the South when Virginia’s new Democratic attorney general said the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex matrimony is unconstitutional and he will join the fight to get it overturned.
In a movement that began with Massachusetts in 2004, 17 states and the District of Columbia now allow gay marriage, most of them in the Northeast. None is in the South.