On Gay Rights, Obama Has Built a Legacy

The executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors caps off a long list of things this White House has done to change life for LGBT Americans.

US President Barack Obama (C) after signing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law at the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, on December 22, 2010. Obama Wednesday signed a law allowing gays to serve openly in the military, repealing the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in a sweeping and historic shift for the US armed forces. 
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
June 17, 2014, 6:38 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s highly pub­lic and of­ten-tor­tured evol­u­tion on gay is­sues is com­plete.

The politi­cian who op­posed gay mar­riage, was cau­tious on al­low­ing gays to serve openly in the mil­it­ary, and res­isted calls to ban fed­er­al con­tract­ors from dis­crim­in­at­ing on the basis of sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion has come a long way in six years. In­deed, he has be­come the pres­id­ent who has done more for gay people than any of his pre­de­cessors.

“The cycle of evol­u­tion has come full circle,” pro­claimed Richard So­car­ides, the New York law­yer who was Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s top ad­viser on gay is­sues and re­mains deeply in­volved in is­sues im­port­ant to the LGBT com­munity. “The evol­u­tion is com­plete.”

So­car­ides has been a fre­quent vis­it­or to the White House for meet­ings on gay is­sues. Many of those ses­sions, he re­called, were “con­ten­tious.” At sev­er­al, Obama sided with the act­iv­ists on the mer­its of an is­sue but laid out a course that was much slower than they de­sired. On more than one oc­ca­sion, So­car­ides said, the pres­id­ent told them the story of Pres­id­ent Roosevelt’s meet­ing with labor lead­ers after his elec­tion in 1932. FDR told the uni­on lead­ers: “I agree with you; I want to do it; now, make me do it.”

“That’s how we kind of al­ways felt we had to deal with him,” said So­car­ides. “His heart has al­ways been with us, and his policy wonk side has al­ways been with us. But in terms of ac­tu­ally tak­ing steps to de­liv­er on the policy goals, we had to push him.”

For al­most all of Obama’s first term, there was great frus­tra­tion and even some an­ger at the White House’s re­fus­al to move more quickly on the LGBT agenda. In 2010, the Justice De­part­ment de­fen­ded the “don’t ask, don’t Ttll” policy in court, much to the chag­rin of act­iv­ists. That same year, Justice ap­pealed a fed­er­al court rul­ing in Bo­ston that had de­clared the De­fense of Mar­riage Act un­con­sti­tu­tion­al. When crit­ics ex­ploded in an­ger, the White House rather meekly in­sisted it wanted to stick with “the pro­cess.”

Fur­ther fuel­ing the frus­tra­tion, the pres­id­ent was stick­ing as well with the po­s­i­tion on mar­riage he had out­lined in 2004 when he said, “I’m a Chris­ti­an. I do be­lieve that tra­di­tion and my re­li­gious be­liefs say that mar­riage is something sanc­ti­fied between a man and a wo­man.” In an in­ter­view then, he in­sisted, “I don’t think mar­riage is a civil right.” That stand star­ted to crack in 2010 when he told ABC’s Jake Tap­per at a press con­fer­ence that his views on mar­riage were “con­stantly evolving. I struggle with this.” In 2011, he told ABC, “I’m still work­ing on it.” It wasn’t un­til 2012 that he used an­oth­er in­ter­view, this time with ABC’s Robin Roberts, to an­nounce his sup­port for gay mar­riage.

That pleased the act­iv­ists — and con­trib­uted to his reelec­tion by help­ing boost turnout of gay voters. But it did not lessen the pres­sure and the de­mands for the ex­ec­ut­ive or­der. “We were tough on our en­emies and tough­er on our friends,” So­car­ides said.

That in­cluded be­ing tough about the ex­ec­ut­ive or­der is­sued this week, something the pres­id­ent ini­tially res­isted be­cause he pre­ferred the pro­tec­tions be provided by Con­gress and not just for fed­er­al con­tract­ors. The Em­ploy­ment Non-Dis­crim­in­a­tion Act has passed the Sen­ate but pro­spects in the House seemed dis­mal, in­creas­ing the pres­sure on the White House to move ahead.

Now, with the an­nounce­ment that the pres­id­ent will sign the ex­ec­ut­ive or­der, he ar­rives in New York City for Tues­day night’s Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee’s an­nu­al LGBT Gala as the toast of the com­munity.

As someone who pushed hard for pres­id­en­tial ac­tion, So­car­ides re­mains a little amazed at how far Obama has come since 2008. “This was far from in­ev­it­able,” he said. “But now it looks like his re­cord on gay rights will be one of his most im­port­ant and last­ing ac­com­plish­ments…. He has turned out to be the fierce ad­voc­ate he told us he wanted to be.”

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