In 2009, gay newsmagazine The Advocate ran a cover story on President Obama’s perceived shortcomings on LGBT policy, illustrating the story with its own take on the famous Shepard Fairey campaign posters and asking “NOPE?” in place of the cutline “HOPE.” Nearly two years later, however, the Obama administration has indeed made important strides in both LGBT and HIV/AIDS policy. There are of course the high-profile achievements, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009), which mandates a federal response to bias crimes motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity. The Shepard Act also mandates the collection of data on hate crimes based on gender identity. But there have been other, quieter victories too.
In terms of HIV/AIDS, January 2010 saw the repeal of the HIV travel and immigration ban, lifting a 22-year prohibition on HIV-positive visitors entering the U.S. for any reason. Also in 2010, the White House Office of National AIDS Policy released the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which aims to reduce new infections, increase access to care, and reduce health disparities, with a focus on African Americans (who account for half of new infections) and gay men (accounting for more than half of new infections). This spring, the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator at the U.S. State Department issued field guidance for HIV prevention among men who have sex with men, which also includes language addressing the needs of transgender people.
In more general LGBT policy, the Department of Education provided some funding for anti-bullying/harassment education in response to the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi last year.
The President has issued Executive Orders giving domestic partner benefits to civilian federal employees, and granting hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners. Early this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed guidelines prohibiting housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and mandated that HUD programs (including government-backed mortgages and public housing) not discriminate against LGBT families (broadening the definition of “family” to include same-sex partners and their children). The State Department changed forms for passports from “Mother and Father” to “Mother/Parent 1 and Father/Parent 2,” and has amended policy guidelines for changing one’s sex on a passport.
Most recently, the Institute of Medicine released a report about LGBT health disparities and research gaps, commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The report, written by leading LGBT health researchers, recommended that “to advance understanding of the health needs of all LGBT individuals, researchers need more data about the demographics of these populations, improved methods for collecting and analyzing data, and an increased participation of sexual and gender minorities in research.”
Also, in June the Obama Administration released its health prevention strategy, which prioritizes the reduction of LGBT health disparities, such as higher rates of breast and ovarian cancer among lesbians. This strategy is a key element of health care reform that will end insurance company discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, including HIV. However, Republicans in Congress and in many states have made clear they will try to prevent implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act. Progressives will have to push hard to ensure health reform is implemented.
Granted, there are still plenty of issues where we have yet to see necessary improvements—notably, marriage equality, immigration equality for bi-national couples, and resources for LGBT youth and homeless populations. It’s also important to recognize that most of the advances detailed above were made under the 111th Congress (2009-2010), led by Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Under the current 112th Congress, with its Republican-controlled House, progressive legislation has virtually ground to a halt. The future is uncertain for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination in hiring or firing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We can also anticipate that this Congress might attempt to resurrect funding for abstinence-only sex education. President Obama can potentially still accomplish quite a bit through Executive Orders and the bully pulpit, but the current climate illustrates the critical importance of elections.
Gay Men’s Health Crisis is proud to recognize that President Obama, working with the Pelosi-Reid Congress, has accomplished more for LGBT equality than any other president in our nation’s history. We as a community must keep the pressure on, and vote, to ensure full LGBT equality and science-based HIV prevention and care.
*Sean Cahill is a Managing Director at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Administration at New York University. Sabina Ibarrola is a GMHC policy intern. GMHC is a not-for-profit, volunteer-supported and community-based organization committed to national leadership in the fight against AIDS, providing prevention and care services to men, women and families that are living with, or affected by, HIV/AIDS in New York City.