7 Reasons 2009 Has Been a Good Year for Gay AmericansGay Americans have much to be proud of these past few weeks. We helped elect the right man President of the United States. So yes, Mabel, there has been a difference.
First of all, at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner in Washington, D.C. last month, President Obama announced that he will ask Congress to overturn the ban on gays in the military, effectively disarming the misguided policies of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ era. Though not posturing a date, the President was very specific in stating that he would honor his campaign pledge; that “we should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve the country."
Yes, activists like myself and Cleve Jones I see too, are perturbed this has not happened more quickly. But I know I can find a little bad in the best of things. The bottom line is that the President has raised the issue and not run from it. The days of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ are coming to a halt.
Second, that same man, Barack Obama, influenced a Democratic congress to end its stalemate and stalling on the Hate Crimes Act. The bill, honoring the lives of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., both victims of hate, each murdered, was passed and signed into law this year. This bill expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It is thus the first federal law to extend legal protection to transgendered persons.
Like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the law empowers federal authorities with a greater ability to engage in hate crimes investigations that local authorities choose not to pursue. It was a bill that Republicans and President Bush had killed for years.
Third, as prior Presidents before him have done, President Obama also signed into law that bill releasing funds for HIV prevention and treatment, including a reauthorization of the Ryan White Act. Every year, this legislation guarantees access to lifesaving medical services, primary care, and medications for more than 500,000 patients, nearly half of all those living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.
Under Team Obama, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act does at least authorize a 5 percent annual increase in federal support over the next four years. Not all is gravy, though. The Bush Administration had imposed some regressive administrative measures that hampered direct assistance to many communities, and those negative changes were not corrected in the recent reauthorization.
Fourth, ENDA is a renewed federal bill in the United States Congress that would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, for civilian nonreligious employers with over 15 employees. Religious organizations and non profit membership only clubs are provided exemptions, similar to the principles of the Civil Rights Act. This year, for the first time, with Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, this bill has a realistic chance of becoming law.
Fifth, President Obama has called upon Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits how state, local and federal bodies can recognize partnerships and determine benefits. He also called for a law to extend benefits to domestic partners. These were not causes supported by the prior administration. As a matter of fact, President Bush was a leader for DOMA from the outset of his administration. Here too, then, the White House has turned a corner.
Sixth, on Friday President Obama announced that he will lift a 22-year-old ban on entry into the United States for people infected with HIV/AIDS. The administration intends to publish a new federal rule next week eliminating the ban by the start of 2010, carrying through on a proposal President Bush had finally endorsed in 2008. It was long past due.
"We talk about reducing the stigma of this disease, yet we've treated a visitor living with it as a threat," President Obama said. "If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it."
The HIV Travel Ban made the United States a pariah in human rights circles. In fact, some of the most significant international conventions studying the AIDS pandemic were not held in the United States because we ostracized ourselves with a Neanderthal policy that so clearly violated both public health needs and human rights.
Seventh, the last and most fundamental change in the Obama Administration is its willingness to select openly gay men and women to positions of influence and trust in the government. The litmus test for a Presidential appointment has become your competence in the daytime, not who you sleep with at night. In Washington, a successful prosecutor who is an out lesbian has just been named a chief US Attorney. In Minnesota, another lesbian has been appointed a US Marshall. In fact, the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute lists over two dozen Presidential GLBT appointments, from Special Counsel to the President to the Deputy Director for Safe Schools.
The gay community has become an operative political force to be reckoned with locally and nationally. There are still heated emotional debates surrounding ‘same-sex marriage’. Politicians are still reticent to join that bandwagon. No matter. Regardless of popular opinion, eventually it is our courts which will decide the legal rights and protections of same-sex couples. As marriage is fundamentally a civil contract which can be voided at will, it is inevitable that same sex marriages will be upheld by the courts.
Some of us in the gay community were initially disturbed with President Obama's first forays into equal justice, but we were foolish. I just don't think that six months into their first term John McCain and Sarah Palin would have been hosting an LGBT Gay Pride Month luncheon in the White House.
In 1993, Bruce Bawer wrote a landmark book entitled “A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society.” Bruce’s vision has come true. We no longer have to window shop our lives from the outside. We are welcome in. We have earned it, and now if we want it, there is a place at the table for us too.