By Lisa Keen
President Obama continued his trend of including references to LGBT people in his State of the Union address Tuesday night (Feb. 12), but he got mixed reviews from the community itself.
Early in the one-hour speech, he told Congress and the national television audience, “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”
Later, in talking about the military, he said, “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight.”
Neither the “Republican response” to the address, delivered by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), nor the response offered by Tea Party Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) addressed any gay specific issue.
Family Equality Council Executive Director Jennifer Chrisler singled out the president’s general comment for fairness, saying,”Tonight the President made clear that every American deserves to have a shot at the American dream regardless of where they live, what they look like or who they love.”
Allyson Robinson, head of the OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, applauded the military-specific statement, saying “President Obama was very clear tonight in his assertion that lesbian and gay service members and their families must be treated equally by the nation they serve.”
But Rea Carey, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, sounded a disappointed tone.
“We have often said that President Obama is the most pro-LGBT president in history. His first term was filled with monumental gains for LGBT people and our families, including the passage of a federal hate crimes law, repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and his declaration of support for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples,” said Carey. “But the state of the union for many LGBT people remains one of economic inequality and insecurity. We urge President Obama to use his leadership to help get us over the finish line during his second term.”
Carey said the president should issue an executive order banning companies that contract with the federal government from discriminating in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And she said President Obama should “pressure” Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, a statewide LGBT group in Illinois, expressed disappointment that President Obama did not use “some of his political capital to push for passage of ENDA, immigration reforms that help same-sex couples, and marriage equality in states, such as Illinois.
And Heather Cronk, managing director of the national activist group GetEqual, said the president’s remarks amount to “lip service.”
“Time and time again, President Obama continues to pay lip service to employment equity,” said Cronk, “but refuses to take the simple step of signing an Executive Order that would end LGBT discrimination by federal contractors – and that would prevent taxpayer dollars, including taxpayer dollars from LGBT Americans, from going to discriminatory companies.”
In his first official State of the Union address, in 2010, President Obama called for repeal of the federal law barring openly gay people from serving in the military. In 2011, just a month after signing into law the bill that repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the president used his State of the Union address to urge universities that had been barring military recruiters over the gay ban to start allowing recruiters back on campus. Last year, he made one direct reference to something gay, saying that, when our servicemembers put on their uniforms, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight.”
As in past years, the White House again this year included an openly gay person among their two dozen special guests, sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama in the House gallery. This year, they chose Tracey Hepner of Arlington, Virginia, and a co-founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC). The Coalition provides support and advocacy for LGBT military partners and their families. She also full time for the Department of Homeland Security as a Master Behavior Detection Officer. She is married to the first openly gay or lesbian general officer in the military, Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith.
The Human Rights Campaign noted that U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) invited a same-sex couple, Kelly Costello and Fabiola Morales, to be his guests at the event.
The White House released a “President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America,” in conjunction with the address Tuesday night. The plan made no mention of LGBT people specifically, but included one section called “Encouraging and strengthening families” in which the president proposes “to remove financial deterrents to marriage for low income couples, and to support and encourage fatherhood including working with the faith community and the private sector.” The plan also called for passage of the bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act but made no specific mention of the new provisions that would make the program available to victims of domestic abuse regardless of their sexual orientation.
U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, issued a brief statement applauding the speech. She did not highlight either of President Obama’s gay-related remarks.