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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 30, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 53
Barack Obama: most LGBT-friendly president in history
Section One
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Barack Obama: most LGBT-friendly president in history

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

When Barack Obama turns the presidency over to Donald Trump at noon on January 20, he will leave office as the most LGBT-friendly president in US history.

Obama's agenda was impeded by Republican control of the US House of Representatives after the 2010 election, by the obstructionism of Senate Republicans, and by lukewarm support from some members of his own party. Nevertheless, he built a solid record on LGBT issues.

Obama's administration supported the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act - the first recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in federal law. Obama signed the measure into law in his first year in office, on October 28, 2009.

His signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare), signed in March 2010 after almost a year of political wrangling, included a requirement that insurance providers cover preexisting conditions. This meant that HIV-positive people could buy insurance at affordable rates and access medical treatment.

Obama also supported repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT), a remnant of Bill Clinton's failed attempt to allow Gay and Lesbian troops to serve openly. Repeal legislation was enacted in December 2010 - during the 'lame duck session' while Democrats still retained a majority in the House. In July 2011, Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen sent Congress a formal certification that repealing DADT would not harm military readiness, thus finalizing the repeal process.

Although Obama supported measures to ban the use of so-called 'conversion therapy' against minors and released a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study condemning the practice, he was not able to get the congressional support necessary to pass a bill to that effect.

Congressional support was also lacking for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would have protected LGBT employees from workplace discrimination. Even though Democratic congressional leaders publicly supported both ENDA and the conversion therapy ban, they were unable - or unwilling - to pressure enough of their colleagues to go along.

The prospects for legislative action on LGBT rights got even worse after the 2010 election, when the president lost his Democratic majority in the House. After that, Obama relied on executive orders and administrative guidelines to expand protections for LGBT Americans.

The most famous example of executive action came in February 2011, when the president and then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that they had concluded that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional and that consequently the administration could not defend it in federal court. The US Supreme Court ultimately agreed in its Windsor decision in June 2013.

Obama and the Justice Department also advocated in favor of a constitutional guarantee of marriage equality for same-sex couples, a position the Supreme Court vindicated in its historic decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

After both court rulings, Obama directed cabinet officers to review federal statutes and regulations to ensure that the rights of same-sex couples were protected and incorporated into federal law.

In July 2014, Obama signed an executive order requiring all companies that do business with the federal government - in other words, every major company in the country - to prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBT employees.

The Obama administration also reinterpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect Transgender people under existing prohibitions against discrimination on account of sex. Recently the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and some federal courts have expanded this interpretation to protect sexual orientation also.

An Obama executive order also required hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid payments to ensure that the rights of LGBT patients are respected by allowing individuals to designate visitors, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Based on the first-ever national study of housing discrimination against LGBT people, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) adopted a rule in January 2012, and subsequent guidelines in 2015, to ensure that HUD's core housing programs and services are open to all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Obama administration released the first-ever comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States in 2010, and later updated it through 2020, in part to address the disparities faced especially by Gay and Bi men of all races and ethnicities and Transgender women of color.

At the international level, a 2011 presidential memorandum directs all federal agencies engaged abroad to ensure that US embassies and foreign service officials promote and protect the human rights of LGBT people. In 2015, Obama also appointed the State Department's first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry.

Since many of these accomplishments rest on executive orders or administrative guidelines developed under Obama appointees, they are very much at risk in a Trump administration.

Imagine, if you can, HUD Secretary Ben Carson overseeing federal nondiscrimination protections. Or Labor Secretary and fast-food billionaire Andrew Puzder worrying about how to apply Title VII to LGBT employees. Or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pausing, while negotiating an oil deal with his friend Vladimir Putin, to lecture him on LGBT rights.

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