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Gay Rights in Obama's Second Term: Don't Expect Too Much

As with any political speech, there is generally a mile-wide gap between what it said and what is pursued. Even the most beautiful orators, like President Obama, are no exception to this rule. In a historically unprecedented move, Obama used his second inaugural address to state that “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law-for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Given the disconnect between his rhetoric and actual policies on other progressive causes célèbres, coupled with finely treading the line on marriage equality, LGB Americans would be wise to remain circumspect about his administration’s actual policies.

Historically, we can be confident that Obama has personally supported LGB individuals throughout his life, but as he moved up the political food chain, it seems he became rather disingenuous about his views and flip-flopped on the issue, thereby abandoning his values and the LGB community. During his 1996 Illinois state senate race, Obama said, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” This was a remarkably progressive stance for the 1990s, but unfortunately he later flip-flopped and came out against marriage in favor of “separate but equal” civil unions. Even his cynical “evolution” on the topic of gay marriage was not without its own calculation. Before coming out in support of equal marriage, he used Vice President Joe Biden’s pro-marriage remarks on Meet the Press as a litmus test to gauge public reaction.

To be sure, the Obama administration has made some significant accomplishments for LGB individuals during his first term. Most famously, he succeeded in pushing a repeal of the military’s infamous “Don’t ask, don’t tell policy” through Congress. Additionally, he’s ordered the Department of Justice to stop upholding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also granted same-sex domestic partners of State Department employees the same benefits available to married heterosexual couples.  

But ultimately, a lot more needs to happen for LGBT individuals to attain equal rights, particularly because the Obama administration’s policies and statements on gay rights are strategically calculated to reflect U.S. public opinion on the matter. U.S. public support of same-sex marriage has rapidly increased from 30% in 2004 to 48% in 2012. Naturally, most of this support is coming from voters who lean Democrat, but 29% of Democrats and 40% of independents still oppose gay marriage. In other words, it is now politically detrimental for Obama not to publicly hold pro-LGB positions. However, if he fully embraces a pro-LGB agenda, he risks alienating a portion of his base and a significant chunk of independent voters. As such, Obama has slowly increased the amount of pro-LGB language in his speeches, but has presented more temperate policies that do not quite match the unequivocally supportive rhetoric. Thus, we would be wise to expect more of the same in his second term.

Even after the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, a White House aide was on record as saying “it’s not like we’re trying to pass legislation.” This attitude persisted throughout his reelection campaign. In an October interview with MTV, Obama stated that he won’t be pushing for gay marriage in his second term. Even worse, he professed his belief that there should not be federal legislation mandating marriage equality on the pretext that it should be decided on the state level.

That’s not to say that Obama will not do anything to advance LGB rights in his second term, but without specific policy outlines to accompany his beautiful inaugural rhetoric, it is very hard to predict what action he might take. Given the president’s politically measured stance on marriage equality, he will likely use the Justice Department to increase pressure on Republicans who are currently supporting DOMA, and will almost certainly speak out against the act when the Supreme Court hears arguments in March. The court is also expected to rule on the constitutionality of California’s ban on gay marriage, giving the president an opportunity to add his voice to the opposition of what could be an historic, precedent-setting ruling. On a practical, legislative level, however, it is highly unlikely that the president will push for anything of significance, particularly with a Republican controlled house and a senate with an obstructionist, filibuster-happy minority.

For better or worse, most LGB activists are preoccupied with the subject of marriage equality, to which Obama is at best a lukewarm ally, and at worst an opportunistic politician hijacking and diluting the gay rights movement for electoral collateral. Furthermore, conspicuously absent in the midst of all this are transgendered activists, who themselves are often sidelined by their “gay brothers and sisters.” 

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