By Amie Parnes - 02/07/13 10:00 AM EST
President Obama has embraced a series of proposals to advance gay causes in his second term, highlighting his changing views on gay rights.
Three weeks ago, Obama became the first president to mention gay marriage in an inaugural address, citing the “Stonewall” riots in New York City as a major landmark in the fight for civil rights.
The transformation of the president who just 15 months ago said he was still evolving on the issue is remarkable — so much so that it caught even gay rights activists and supporters by surprise.
They’re now hopeful Obama will make history again by appointing the first openly gay Cabinet secretary, which would “be an important milestone,” said Denis Dison, the vice president of communications for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute.
“I don’t want to say I find it surprising,” said one top gay rights activist and Obama donor. “But there are some times when I have to pinch myself and sort of sit back and marvel at what’s happened and how we’ve come so far in just two years. There’s still work to be done, of course, but I don’t think anyone can complain about the pace of progress.
“It’s fantastic, and the culmination of it all was the inaugural address,” said one senior staffer at a high-profile organization that advocates for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people (LGBT). “I don’t think any one of us expected an embrace at this level. I paused and thought, ‘Did he just say what I think he said?’ It was one of those moments that is as important as his support of marriage equality.”
Dison said there are many things Obama has done that the LGBT community can be proud of, “not least of which is that he has appointed a record number of them to serve in his administration.”
But while Obama has been widely praised in the LGBT community in recent months, there are still other issues activists are pushing for in his second term. For starters, they would like to see Obama sign an executive order that would ban federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT workplace discrimination. In an attempt to apply some pressure, a petition was created on the White House website. As of Wednesday, the petition had more than 172,700 supporters.
Gay rights advocates also see an opening in the immigration debate to fight for a proposal that would allow tens of thousands of people in same-sex relationships to apply for legal residency.
The proposal faces staunch opposition from Republicans — including Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). In an interview with Buzzfeed on Tuesday, Rubio predicted that if the same-sex issue becomes the focus of the debate, “it’s going to become harder to get it done because there will be strong feelings on both sides.”
But gay rights groups predicted a fight if Obama moves ahead without the provision.
“It will spark some outrage because the lesson is, the louder we are the more attention we get,” the senior staffer said.
Obama angered LGBT groups by inviting evangelical pastor Louie Giglio, who in the 1990s had said that homosexuality offends God, to perform the president’s inauguration benediction. Giglio eventually pulled out of the ceremony.
Gay rights activists — some of whom donated vast sums of money to Obama’s two presidential campaigns — say they were also disappointed by the president’s efforts in the first couple of years of the administration. They felt as though the White House dragged its feet on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which banned gays from serving openly in the military, and on other issues.
“There was a real sense of anger that this president talks a good game and that was about it,” the senior staffer at the LGBT organization said. “Since then the administration has really ramped up their participation in the moment. It feels like there’s almost nothing that the administration isn’t at least on board with in spirit.”
With Obama’s comments on the Boy Scouts and the Pentagon’s decision to offer certain benefits to same-sex couples in the headlines, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked on Wednesday about what has driven the president to his evolution on issues like same-sex marriage.
Carney pointed reporters to Obama’s interview last year with ABC’s Robin Roberts, on the day he announced his support for gay marriage. But he added that “there’s no question … that our country has as a whole evolved significantly in our view, the public’s view, of these matters.
“And the president believes that’s a very good thing,” he said.
Asked in particular about the Pentagon decision, Carney said that Obama has been “very attentive” to the issue and “believed that it needs to be addressed.”