June, also known as LGBT Pride Month, was busy for President Barack Obama.
First, there was the announcement that he’d be signing an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Then there were the sanctions against Uganda for the country’s anti-gay laws. Then there was the extension of marriage benefits to same-sex couples who live in states that don’t recognize their unions.
And to cap it all off, at a White House Pride Month celebration on the last night of June, Obama announced he’d be taking yet another step for equality – this time, by signing a separate executive order protecting transgender employees of the U.S. government.
Pretty unbelievable for a month’s work, even for a man once dubbed (or should we say “canonized?”) by Newsweek as “The First Gay President” – complete with a rainbow halo – despite not actually being gay.
There’s no questioning the fact that President Obama has been a transformative force for the LGBT community, going further in protecting their rights “than any administration in history,” as he’ll often boast. But there may be another beneficiary in this equation: President Obama himself.
With his poll numbers on the decline, a Congress locked in stagnation, and an intensifying crisis in the Middle East, the president must be eager to be part of a winning team right about now. And few issues have had a streak quite as winning as LGBT equality.
“Bottom line is, it’s now become good politics to support equality, which was not the case until very recent times,” said Ethan Geto, a New York gay rights activist and political consultant. “From blue states to swing areas, I think it will be a significant net-plus for Democrats, and it generally becomes more so every year.”
Not every aspect of Obama’s presidency is racking up the same number of popularity points. According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the president’s overall approval rating is at 41%, down three points from April and tied for his all-time low in the survey. That could spell trouble for the Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections, not mention, for Obama’s legacy.
When considering the last year’s historic progress for LGBT Americans – be it marriage equality’s undefeated record in the courts, the NFL’s drafting of openly gay football player Michael Sam, transgender actor Laverne Cox’s TIME cover, or the Harvey Milk postage stamp – doubling down on the equality movement may not only be the right thing to do in Obama’s mind, but the politically expedient thing to do as well.
“I think he’s going to be viewed as the greatest champion in the history of the United States and in the world for [LGBT] equality and for expanding civil liberties,” said Geto.
Additionally, supporting equality is “a smart, rationale strategy for him in terms of holding onto his base, of making sure that a large part of his base that is very invested in domestic policy remembers this enormous commitment he’s made and the actions he’s taken.”
Obama’s recent moves for LGBT equality come on top of a record that already includes repealing the military’s ban on openly gay service members, known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; abandoning the Defense of Marriage Act, which excluded married same-sex couples from federal benefits; signing a tough hate crimes measure into law; ending a 22-year-old travel and immigration ban against people with HIV; appointing all 10 gay judges currently serving on the federal bench; and becoming the first president to publicly endorse same-sex marriage.
For some who have worked with Obama on those accomplishments, suggesting that they were at all politically motivated casts a fairly cynical shadow, one that they’re quick to dispel.
“He has advanced the issue when the poll numbers are up and he has advanced the issue when the poll numbers are down,” said Tobias Barrington Wolff, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former advisor to Obama’s first presidential campaign. “This has never been a matter of political opportunism for him. It has been a matter of principle. I can tell you that first hand.”
Of course, a deeper dive into the archives of Obama’s LGBT record shows that it’s not quite perfect.
In 1996, when he was running for the Illinois Senate, Obama stated that he favored allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed. But by 2004, when anti-gay marriage bans were surfacing on ballots across the country, then-U.S. Senate candidate Obama said he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. He held the same position on marriage as a presidential candidate in 2008.
It wasn’t until 2012 that President Obama publicly voiced his support for same-sex nuptials, concluding that civil unions were not a sufficient substitute for marriage.
This declaration “flipped the conventional political wisdom on its head,” said Wolff. “Before the president made his announcement, people viewed support for marriage equality as a risk. As soon as he announced his support, it was people who oppose marriage equality who had to explain and justify their position.”
Still, the flip-flopping and its seemingly calculated timing raised eyebrows.
Was it political? Probably – at least in part.
“Everything that a president does these days is political,” said Democratic strategist Jimmy Williams, an msnbc contributor and executive editor of bluenationareview.com.
Was it unforgivable? Hardly.
“I found that in politics, people don’t mind that you flip if you’re flipping the right way,” said Rodell Mollineau, Democratic strategist and former communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “He’s not the only person throughout time who has changed his mind on this issue. He has evolved like many leaders evolved as to perceptions of African Americans and their place in society.”
Mollineau isn’t the only person to draw the link between the acceptance of LGBT Americans and for African Americans, though he added comparing the two amounts to a “false equivalency.” Obama himself has linked the civil rights and LGBT rights movements several times over the course of his presidency, most recently in Monday’s Pride Month speech, during which he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Obama, urging LGBT advocates to look beyond their movement toward other areas of inequality as well.
That the nation’s first black president may be remembered more for the work he’s accomplished in the LGBT community than for what he’s done in the African American community is somewhat surprising. But then again, said Mollineau, “the LGBT equality movement is the civil rights movement of our time.”
However political or principled Obama’s strides for equality have been, eventually he’ll lose his crown to the actual first gay president (just as Bill Clinton lost his “First Black President” title, given to him by Toni Morrison, to Obama.) But as far as policies go, the nation’s first gay president likely won’t have much to do in terms of advancing LGBT rights. In the end, “The First Gay President” will have already done most of the heavy lifting.