LONDON — The young person at President Obama’s town hall meeting with British youths here on Saturday was trembling.
“Now I am about to do something terrifying, which is I am coming out to you as a non-binary person, which means that I don’t fit,” Maria Munir said, appearing before the president and 500 British young leaders. Non-binary people don’t identify with any gender.
“I am getting emotional. I am so sorry,” Munir continued.
Obama listened with his arms folded across his chest and his head slightly bowed. “That’s all right,” he replied.
Obama’s town hall covered issues such as terrorism, trade and the troubles in Northern Ireland. He spoke about the important role that the Black Lives Matter movement played in surfacing the problem of police violence, but he was also obliquely critical on the movement’s approach. “Once you have highlighted an issue and elected officials, or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” he said.
The topic that most dominated Obama’s meeting with British young people was social change and, in particular, the gay and transgender rights movement. For possibly the first time in his presidency, Obama, who typically takes questions on a boy-girl or girl-boy rotation, fielded a query from a person who claims no gender.
“I come from a Pakistani-
Muslim background, which inevitably has cultural implications,” Munir said before asking the president about a North Carolina law that limits protections for transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual people and what he would do to protect those with no gender.
“We literally have no rights . . . I really wish yourself and [Prime Minister] David Cameron would take us seriously as transgender people,” the questioner said to Obama.
A day earlier at a news conference with Cameron, Obama said that laws similar to the ones recently passed in North Carolina and Mississippi are “wrong” and “should be overturned.” On Saturday, Obama spoke directly to Munir, who helps lead a local movement on behalf of non-binary people’s rights, attends university and is running for office.
“I’m incredibly proud of the steps it sounds like you have already taken to speak out about your own experience and to start a social movement to change laws,” Obama replied. He talked briefly about the changes he had made in the federal government to protect LGBT rights. And he used the questions at the town hall to speak about both the social changes that had taken place over the course of his presidency and the personal changes he has undergone as an elected official who initially opposed gay marriage.
“It’s probably been the fastest set of changes in terms of a social issue that I’ve seen,” Obama said.
Obama said he had initially supported civil unions for gays and lesbians, rather than traditional marriage, because he believed it was best to disentangle the civil rights issues at stake from the broader religious debate.
In London, he conceded that he “should have realized earlier” that he was wrong, and he admitted that his daughters and gay friends helped him better understand the issue. “It was not simply about legal rights but a sense of stigma.” Obama said. “If you are calling it something different, then somehow it means less in the eyes of society.”
He encouraged Munir to keep pressing for faster change: “It doesn’t feel fast enough for you or for those who are impacted, and that’s good,” Obama said. “You shouldn’t feel satisfied. You should keep pushing. But I think the trend lines are good on this.”