Obama's State of the Union address receives praise from advocates

Posted by Justin Snow
February 13, 2013 1:17 AM |

Obama SOTU.jpg

President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday night before a joint session of Congress, making brief reference to the LGBT community. 

Coming on the heels of the president's second inaugural address, in which he made a historic call for full equality for "our gay brothers and sisters," Obama’s mention of LGBT issues was brief in comparison.

"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," Obama said, in what was perceived by some to be an allusion to federal workplace protections for LGBT Americans.

In his most direct statement about LGBT issues, Obama referred to the successful repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Pentagon's decision one day earlier to extend certain benefits to same-sex military families. 

"We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight," Obama declared.

Although Obama went on to mention comprehensive immigration reform as well as the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, both of which he supports including LGBT provisions, there was no mention of the Defense of Marriage Act or Obama's support for same-sex marriage.

Despite Obama's brief mention of LGBT issues, which he has made a cornerstone of his presidency, many advocates praised the speech as speaking to broader national issues that affect all Americans.

"The references in the speech were meaningful. Both reaffirm his commitment to equality in ways that are substantively and thematically important," Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz told Metro Weekly. "This president has done a lot for LGBT people, but one of his greatest legacies will be the unapologetic way in which he has included LGBT people when speaking about our country and the way it should afford opportunity to all." 

The LGBT community was on display at Obama's speech as well, with Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is reportedly gay, seated with first lady Michelle Obama, along with Tracey Hepner, the wife of Army Brigadier Gen. Tammy Smith, the nation's highest ranking out servicemember. Hepner, who is also a co-founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition, presented Smith with her stars when she was promoted to general in August. 

According to Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, Hepner and Smith represent the progress made after the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but also the struggles that remain. 

"Sadly, Tracey Hepner and General Smith also embody some of the work that remains ahead of us to achieve full LGBT military equality, because they are still treated as second-class citizens by our military because of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and other federal laws that prevent the military from treating all military families equally," Robinson said in a statement.

The reference to equal benefits for same-sex military families in particular pleased advocates who have been pressuring the Pentagon to act more than a year after the repeal of DADT.

"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," Robinson said.

According to Robinson, to finish that task DOMA must be struck down by the Supreme Court, equal opportunity and nondiscrimination policies must be enacted by the next defense secretary, and "outmoded, obsolete policies that bar qualified American patriots who are transgender from military service must be eliminated." 

Obama's allusion to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was also welcomed by advocates, even if it wasn't the open declaration of support some had hoped for. 

"We were heartened to hear President Obama allude to the need to outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans as part of America’s unfinished business," Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, told Metro Weekly in an email. "We hope the President will explicitly call on both Chambers of Congress to pass ENDA in another speech sometime before the Senate votes that are expected this year."

According to Almeida, Obama must do two things to advance workplace fairness: encourage Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring ENDA for a floor vote, and sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The White House has said Obama would prefer to see federal legislation passed extending workplace protections rather than take executive action. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said action will be taken on ENDA this year.

"We're going to move ENDA this year," Harkin declared.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who serves on the HELP committee and is the upper chamber''s first out member, told Metro Weekly she "couldn't agree more" that ENDA will finally begin to move forward this year.

"I was pleased with the power of his language, especially with regard to seeing through the implementation of the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and respecting not only the right to serve, but the right to full recognition of family members of those who serve," Baldwin added.

Not all were pleased with the president’s message, however. Gregory T. Angelo, interim executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, criticized the economic vision presented by Obama.

"As LGBT conservatives, Log Cabin Republicans is pleased with recent progress toward equality for gay and lesbian Americans. As citizens, however, we are fearful of the future that the next generation of gay Americans will inherit," Angelo said in a statement. "If the President truly wants to be an ally to our community, he will not only continue pushing for social equality, but stop with the platitudes and get serious with a plan that addresses our nation's fiscal problems."

[Image: Obama delivers the State of the Union address (Screenshot via YouTube).]


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