Say what you will, 2009 and 2010 have been good years for gay Americans under the presidency of Barack Obama. We helped elect the right man President of the United States. So yes, Mabel, there has been a difference.
First of all, the wrongs visited upon the lesbian couple in Miami a few years ago may be righted by an executive order the President authorized last week on his plane ride back to the Capitol from a Florida fundraiser. No longer will same sex partners be denied the right to visit their loved ones in a hospital. It’s our front page story, and it is a significant legal victory for same-sex relationships.
Second, President Obama continues to support measures to overturn the ban on gays in the military, effectively disarming the misguided proponents of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’.
Activists are genuinely and legitimately perturbed this has not happened more quickly. They have this newspaper’s support. Still, the bottom line is that the President has raised the issue and not run from it. The days of ‘DADT’ are grinding to a halt.
Third, the President 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 in 2009. This bill expanded hate crimes to include acts motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It was 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.
Fourth, as prior Presidents before him have done, President Obama also signed into law bills 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, there has been a 5 percent annual increase in federal support. Not all is gravy, though. The Bush Administration had imposed some regressive administrative measures which hampered direct assistance to many communities, and those negative changes were not corrected in the recent reauthorization.
Fifth, 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 nonprofit membership only clubs are provided exemptions, similar to the principles of the Civil Rights Act. The bill has a realistic chance of becoming law. It has been slowed in the chambers of bureaucracy, but we must push forth nevertheless. We should stand for nothing less.
Sixth, 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.
Seventh, President Obama has also lifted the 22-year-old ban on entry into the United States for people infected with HIV/AIDS. The administration has published new federal rules eliminating the ban, carrying through on a proposal President Bush had finally endorsed in 2008. It was long past due. 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.
Eighth, 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 been named a chief US Attorney. In Minnesota, another lesbian was appointed a US Marshall. There have been dozens of Presidential LGBT appointments, and now one of our columnists suggests one such nominee is a candidate for the Supreme Court.
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, it is our courts which will eventually 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.
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.