Last night, President Obama spoke three words never explicitly said before in a State of the Union address: “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “transgender.” At the same time the president reaffirmed his commitment to marriage equality calling it a “civil right,” only days after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to rule on whether gay marriage bans are constitutional.
President Obama on LGBT rights:
“As Americans, we respect human dignity […] It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.”
LGBT rights organizations nationwide quickly praised the president for his historic affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Chad Griffin and Jody Huckaby shared their reactions with me via email.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign:
“President Obama has consistently shown a deep commitment to legal and social equality for LGBT Americans, but last night, through his inclusive and groundbreaking language, he proved that carrying the banner for LGBT equality will be a core and defining aspect of his legacy of leadership as President.”
Jody Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG National:
“President Obama’s words last night were affirming to PFLAG families in so many ways, from removing a cloak of invisibility from our lesbian, bisexual, and transgender loved ones, to his recommitment to marriage as a civil right. We hope that the Supreme Court will soon follow suit in recognizing the freedom to marry for all loving and committed couples.”
Other LGBT leaders shared their reactions on various media Web sites.
Mara Keisling, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality in a statement on the organization’s blog:
“His mention of us makes us know that he meant us when he talked about Americans. When he spoke about children, he meant transgender children too. When he spoke about immigrants, he meant transgender immigrants too. When he talked about service members and veterans, he meant the transgender people too.”
Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center in California to the ‘Huffington Post’:
“I listened to the State of the Union with bated breath. President Obama’s public recognition of transgender people in his State of the Union address was historic. It is time for the American public to become aware of our stories and struggles both at home and around the globe.”
Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, on Advocate.com:
“Hopefully, if President Obama can say the word ‘bisexual,’ the rest of the world can too. Whether it’s bisexual funding, bisexual health services, bisexual rape counseling services, or bisexual suicide prevention, ‘the B in LGBT’ needs to be acknowledged and identified as a population in dire need of support and resources.”
On marriage equality the president was equally outspoken:
“I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country — a civil right now legal in states that seven in 10 Americans call home.”
In response, Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, said in a statement:
“Once again, President Obama showed his commitment to the civil rights movement that has led to the freedom to marry now in 37 states representing 70% of the American people. President Obama’s leadership in helping bring the freedom to marry to all Americans will be a shining part of this president’s legacy, and now it is time for the Supreme Court to put the country on the right side of history by ending marriage discrimination throughout the United States, leaving no family and no state behind.”
The first time the president explicitly referred to “gay rights” in an inaugural address was in 2013. Obama linked gay rights with civil rights, saying that it was “our generation’s task” to carry on what began at Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, the epicenters of the women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights movements. While it was a first, some advocates expressed disappointment that he didn’t speak of transgender rights as well as that time.
Similarly, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Keisling told the Advocate last night: “Of course, the advancement of those [transgender] policies is so much more important than a mention in a speech.” “But make no mistake, the president of the United States condemning persecution against transgender people is pivotal. It will empower trans people to stand taller and work harder to improve this country for all people,” she added.
If anything the president’s inclusive language and supportive language might mean the most to young, closeted LGBT individuals. “When our President says four words out loud, he brings millions out of America’s closet. He also gives millions of parents hope and respect for their own struggling kids,” said Bob Witeck, a Washington-based LGBT business consultant.