It's not that hard for liberals to be disappointed with Obama (it's not that hard for conservatives, either, but that's neither here nor there). Take gay rights, for instance. In 1996, Obama supported gay marriage. Then, some time in the next 12 years, that position slowly vanished. In 2008, Obama was for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act – also known as DOMA, the federal statute defining marriage as between one man and one woman – except he also thought marriage was definitely between one man and one woman. And then in 2011 we learned that the President never supported gay marriage, except he did, except he meant civil unions instead or something.
It wasn't until last year that Obama voiced full support for gay rights, and even then his decision seemed more political than anything. Just a few days before the announcement, Biden had forced his hand by voicing support for same-sex marriage. And then, of course, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reminded everyone that the White House considers gay marriage a state issue and would not get involved on a federal level. So liberals resigned themselves to what they traditionally expected from Obama: symbolic support and less outright hostility than they expected from McCain or Romney.
Then the second inauguration happened. In the process of recasting American history as the inevitable march of progressivism, Obama mentioned the Stonewall riots directly alongside the Selma marches and the Seneca Falls Convention. The Stonewall riots, a series of violent demonstrations that took place in response to a police raid on a gay-friendly bar in Greenwich Village, are widely considered to mark the beginning of the modern LGBT movement in America.
The reference to Stonewall struck knowledgeable viewers both for what it represented and its finesse.
"I was pleasantly taken aback .... No president has ever mentioned gay people in an inaugural address," Dr. Lane Fenrich said. Fenrich, the Associate Dean for Freshman in Weinberg and a lecturer in the Department of History, teaches LGBT history in America. Like many viewers, he said he found himself pleasantly surprised by the Stonewall reference, only to find himself even more amazed by what came next. Obama followed his oblique reference to gay rights with a clear pledge: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
For Medill senior Zach Wichter, that full support was surprising but not unexpected. Wichter, co-president of Northwestern's undergraduate LGBT group Rainbow Alliance, said he has never doubted the president's liberal leaning. “I think Obama’s always been a closet liberal,” he said.
With support for gay marriage rising above 50 percent for the first time in American history, support for gay rights is no longer a political liability for Obama and other national politicians. The election of the first openly LGBT senator to the largest class of LGBT legislators in congressional history, along with success for gay rights in every gay marriage-related ballot measure, made this election the most successful in recent memory for LGBT groups.
Despite these recent successes, the struggle to promote gay rights is still ongoing. The day after Obama namechecked Stonewall, White House press secretary Jay Carney reminded reporters of the party line: Gay rights still remains a state issue in the eyes of the White House. Professor Héctor Carrillo, who teaches about sexuality in the Department of Sociology, pointed to a recent New York Times editorial as a reminder of the gap between Obama's rhetoric and his actions. "What remains to be seen," Carrillo said, "is how his administration will transform that position into practice."
Of course, for all its lack of major action, the White House is still supporting gay rights as best it can. Fenrich notes that while the White House does not want to be seen overstepping its bounds on what it considers a state issue, the Obama administration is still taking action quietly, supporting local movements and refusing to defend DOMA. That same refusal to defend DOMA has been an enormous boon to plaintiffs in several high-profile court cases which are trying to win the fight for gay rights through the courts.
But for all his talk and helpful inaction on gay rights, Obama has been silent on other LGBT issues. As Wichter said, “[Trans issues] are a whole separate set of policy and politics that hasn’t really been addressed as much by this administration.” Despite Biden’s statement last year that trans rights are the “civil rights issue of our time,” the Obama administration has yet to do much to publicly support trans rights, and that silence has not gone unnoticed.
Obama’s reticence is not the only political problem the LGBT community faces, either. On March 26, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Hollingsworth v. Perry, a landmark case about the constitutionality of California’s controversial Proposition 8. The next day, they will do the same for United States v. Windsor, a case which questions whether or not the Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional.
In these cases, the Obama administration has a chance to promote gay rights without requiring too much executive action. Carrillo sees a historic opportunity for the administration here, saying, "The administration now has an opportunity to go beyond its rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act to forcefully argue for the constitutionality of same-sex marriage as a general framework that should inform state decisions on this issue." Certainly, if the Obama administration is willing to defend gay rights in these two cases, it has the potential to win some major victories without being seen as overstepping executive bounds.
On the other hand, the court could also invalidate years of work by the LGBT community. Of the nine Supreme Court justices currently on the bench, Scalia and Thomas have previously voted against striking down sodomy laws, and the first briefs seem designed to appeal to Kennedy, the most likely swing vote. Dr. Fenrich, though he does not want to make a prediction on the court case one way or another, noted that "a decision against same-sex marriage, at this point, would be a major setback in all sorts of ways." If gay marriage advocates lose here, they'll be forced to take their fight to the ground in all 50 states, and many of those are steep, uphill battles.
Wichter, at least, is optimistic. He said he views the march of gay rights as a tough struggle, but one in which victory is beginning to feel, if not inevitable, perhaps expected. “This election was a watershed moment,” he said. “That sort of action by the people of this country sends a message to politicians that now is the time. The tide is changing.”