By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
This January, President Barack Obama ascended to the speaker’s rostrum in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives to deliver the 2015 State of the Union address to the 114th United States Congress.
Anything said during the State of the Union is important. This is where the president not only addresses the current state of the country as a whole, but lays out his administrative agenda. One particular section of the speech, however, deserves special mention here.
“As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained,” said the President, adding, “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.”
This marks the first time any President of the United States of America has used the word transgender. It was also the first time for the words lesbian or bisexual, for that matter.
Like I said above, this is important. This says that this is an administration that isn’t afraid to speak our name, that it is willing to put support for members of the LGBT community in the most important annual speech the president makes. He could have easily weaseled out of it, maybe saying a far more vague “sexual minorities” in place, or even just sticking to the acronym. After all, every word of this speech is vetted before the president even leaves the White House for the Capitol.
That he included it sends a clear message of support from this president — a president who did mention in this very speech that he has no more campaigns to run and at this point does not need to take any sort of risks.
I feel I should include that this administration has done quite a bit for transgender people, making the use of the term “transgender” in this speech that much more than lip service. This is an administration that has spoken with the transgender community, has shown its support and has even hosted the first Transgender Day of Remembrance at the White House itself.
This administration has streamlined passports for transgender people, has seen the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health and Human services speak out on transgender rights and has seen the Department of Justice clarify that Title VII protections extend to transgender people.
Even the signature bill of this administration, the Affordable Care Act, includes transgender coverage. The law prohibits health insurance companies from discriminating against transgender people. This administration has, unquestionably, made great strides on behalf of the transgender community.
Yet, with so much done, so much remains to be done.
We have seen anti-transgender violence remain one of the bigger killers of transgender people, with transgender people — particularly transgender women of color — murdered with a disturbing regularity. There have been three anti-transgender murders reported in the United States since the State of the Union. It is hard to cheer words in a speech when people are dying — and their killers remain free.
Suicide, too, remains a top killer of transgender people. Leelah Alcorn’s death has topped the news, yet she is just one of many. 41 percent of transfolks have attempted suicide. Even more so for those who have become homeless, experience bullying or have had troubles with their families.
Even with the administration taking such a strong stance for transgender rights, abuses happen. There is no magic to a statement from the Department of Justice or anyone that will prevent a transgender person from being discriminated against. By the same token, while the ACA does prohibit insurance companies from discriminating, a lot of the work to prevent it has to be done at the state level, opening the door for abuses to take place regardless of the law.
Even with this administration’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” transgender people remained out in the cold, having to remain in a sort of limbo in the military, unable to serve openly.
Even with Title VII protections, we do not have an explicit bill like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. We’re, of course, unlikely to get it with this current congress and — as it stands — that’s probably a good thing. We want a strong bill, not one that includes a “Hobby Lobby” style religious exemption to discriminate.
This brings up the last big issue. While the president can speak of condemning persecution of transgender people, he is going to be facing a congress that is largely set against him and will be doing its level best to roll back the legislative changes he has made to date. In 2016, too, we’ll see the election of a new president — and potentially one who does not share his opinions on transgender people. It may not be the last time President Obama mentions transgender people in the State of the Union, but it could be a long time before another president does so, depending on the next election.
So let’s look at what this is: an administration that has worked on our behalf, making it clear that they will continue to attempt to do so even in the midst of the uphill battle that will be the 114th Congress. Meanwhile, I will hope we’ll see even more support down the line, and can reach a time when our human dignity is respected regardless of the words of the president.