After months of watching the Republican presidential soap opera and gasping as the candidates attempted to out-blather and revile each other, I expected President Obama to articulate a vision of America in his State of the Union address Tuesday, Jan. 24, that I could appreciate. I knew the speech would focus on the economy and a call to “renew American values” based on fairness and equality.
As a political reporter, I listened as he outlined his specific proposals, directing his administration to take action or announcing executive orders to bypass Congress. But as an official second-class citizen, my gay brain screamed every time the President talked about fairness and equal opportunity for American citizens who “play by the rules.”
“The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise [of the American Dream] alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. (Applause.) What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.”
Amen! The most profound principle of American values is the full equality of each citizen – one to another. Warren Buffet shouldn’t have to pay less in taxes than his secretary.
But what about those of us for whom fairness itself is still an elusive dream – all those gay people, many with families, who cannot get a job because they’re gay, or fear even trying for a job or expect to be fired on the spot if they’re exposed as gay, and automatically feel that “less than” shame because they do not have the simple dignity afforded to anyone holding a job? (See Octavia Spencer’s Golden Globe acceptance speech for “The Help” for an example of what I mean.)
What about LGBT people, Mr. President? Many of us feel like we’re the growing number of people who are barely getting by – even though we pay more than our fair share of taxes and play by the rules. Right now, 34 states legally discriminate against LGBT people in employment. Why does that not merit a promise in the State of the Union where the message is about jobs and putting people back to work?
Mind you, we’re not talking about a handful of people or even an impossible situation to correct, considering that Obama supports the inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act introduced in Congress last year by openly gay and retiring Rep. Barney Frank. According to the Williams Institute, there are approximately 7 million LGBT private sector employees, 1 million state and local employees, and 200,000 federal employees. Presumably, there are more LGBT people who want jobs, even though they face potential harassment. In July 2011, the Williams Institute’s Brad Sears produced a report that included a 2008 General Social Survey (GSS) in which “data show that over one in four LGBT employees report discriminatory treatment in the workplace in past the five years, and over one-third are not out to anyone at work.”
A 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that their transgender respondents, most of whom live in poverty, “experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population at the time of the survey, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.” Additionally, “Ninety percent (90%) of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it.”
Perhaps Obama, like so many Americans, thinks the LGBT community is rich, white and has no issue with finding or holding a job. Otherwise, how could this constitutional scholar and one-time community organizer not grasp the serious economic disadvantage LGBT people experience because of public and private discrimination allowed by the government?
Perhaps someone could slip him the 2011 report “All Children Matter” that explains the ripple effect of jobless parents. The report says that roughly two million children are being raised by LGBT parents. But, “Contrary to stereotypes, children being raised by same-sex couples are twice as likely to live in poverty as children being raised by married heterosexual households. Same-sex couples of color raising children are more likely to be poor than white same-sex couples raising children.”
Perhaps if these parents could get jobs they could better feed and care for their kids. Talk about “class warfare” – look at this Williams Institute graphic showing where most African American same sex couples live, for instance – not exactly in progressive communities:
And Williams Distinguished Scholar Dr. Gary Gates just released a new analysis, published by the National Council of Family Relations. From the press release:
“These findings debunk popular misconceptions about parenting among same-sex couples, particularly that those raising children are predominantly white, urban and wealthy,” said author Gates.
Demographic data show significant diversity among same-sex couples with children. These families live throughout the country: of same-sex couples by region, 26% in the South, 24% in New England, and 21% in the Pacific states are raising children. Childrearing is substantially higher among racial/ethnic minorities and African-Americans, in particular, are 2.4 times more likely than their White counterparts to be raising children. Further, among individuals in same-sex couples who did not finish high school, 43% are raising children, and 20% of children raised by same-sex couples live in poverty….
The study’s findings have significant implications for research and policy. The geographic data suggest that many same-sex couples with children live in states with limited or no legal protections for their families.
Is this inequality not worthy of mention in the State of the Union?
President Obama said:
You see, an economy built to last is one where we encourage the talent and ingenuity of every person in this country. That means women should earn equal pay for equal work. (Applause.) It means we should support everyone who’s willing to work, and every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs.
Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same. It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom. No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.
Right. So let’s look at tax reform – would it have been too much to mention the tax equity legislation the Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper has been pushing for a while. That’s a small step in the right direction.
And apparently there is a proposed executive order that would ban any contractor who does business with the federal government from discriminating against LGBT people. Chris Geidner at the Metro Weekly reports that
a proposed expansion of the federal contractor nondiscrimination executive order to include sexual orientation and gender identity has been given the OK by both the Labor Department, which oversees federal contract compliance, and the Justice Department and that the executive order proposal is at the White House.
More than one of these sources add, however, that there is not a formal approval process for the executive order proposal — which would expand Executive Order 11246 and need to be signed by President Obama — and that information continues to flow between and among all parties, both in and out of the government.
Under the executive order as it exists today, the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs ensures that all federal contractors doing more than $10,000 in government contract work in a year comply with the executive order’s equal employment opportunity policy. The current order prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Advocates have been pressing the administration to expand the order to include sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Freedom to Work’s Tico Almeida, the lead counsel in the House of Representatives working on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) from 2007 to 2010, told Metro Weekly, ”I predict the president will sign the ENDA executive order during the next few months or, maybe, he will save it for pride month in June.” Metro Weekly continued:
Of the impact of the expansion, Almeida and others note that it would not be a decision outside of mainstream opinion. Noting that nearly 80 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support ENDA, Almeida also pointed to an October 2011 report by the Williams Institute finding that the five federal contractors with the largest annual dollar amount in contracts — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Dynamics — already have nondiscrimination policies that cover both sexual orientation and gender identity.
At the same time, American Civil Liberties Union legislative representative Ian Thompson noted the historic nature of the proposal, ”For the first time in U.S. history, there would be employees in every state in the private sector who have employment protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Of that time, Almeida said, ”[I]t will be a historic accomplishment that helps all Americans rest assured that our taxpayer funds are not being squandered to subsidize prejudice and harassment. This president has a fantastic record on LGBT equal rights, and that’s why I am optimistic that he will sign this ‘no-brainer’ of a policy change.”
Of the President’s State of the Union address, Almeida told me:
President Obama spoke clearly and strongly about giving all Americans a fair shot at the American Dream. He also said that when Congress becomes obstructionist, he will act alone. Based on this speech and the ‘We Can’t Wait’ campaign he has been waging for the past few months, I am convinced the president will take strong executive action on ENDA very soon, either in the next few months or maybe he will save the ENDA executive order for Pride Month. The executive order is smart politics in an election year because it polls strongly across the political spectrum and it lets the American taxpayers rest assured that they no longer have to subsidize the prejudice of a few irrational federal contractors.
Almeida is also involved in trying to get the large federal defense contractor DynCorp to protect LGBT employees from harassment. So far more than 35,000 people have joined a growing campaign on Change.org calling on DynCorp International to change its policy after it settled a lawsuit with a former employee who claimed that DynCorp bosses did nothing to stop significant anti-gay harassment on the job, including being called “queer” and “f*ggot” in front of managers.
“If DynCorp is going to continue profiting from billions of dollars from the American taxpayers, then the corporation should have to abide by American values like judging people based on their talent and hard work, not their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Almeida in a press release. “Our taxpayer money should never be used to subsidize bigotry and discrimination.”
To be sure, the administration has initiated several actions to improve life for LGBT Americans – the most recent of which was HUD Sec. Shaun Donovan speaking at NGLTF’s Creating Change on Jan. 28 about new policies to fight LGBT discrimination in housing (Watch Washington Blade video here. ) “Today, I am proud to announce a new equal access to housing rule that says clearly and unequivocally that LGBT individuals and couples have the right to live where they choose,” MetroWeekly reported him telling the audience in Baltimore, MD.
But as MetroWeekly reports, the rule prohibits discrimination in HUD-backed housing programs, “guarantees that LGBT individuals are eligible for HUD’s public housing programs and states that discrimination is prohibited on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all Federal Housing Administration-backed loans – which Donovan said constituted 40 percent of all loans for Americans who bought a home last year.”
Could signing the ENDA Executive Order be construed as essentially a similar edict coming from the Labor Department?
President Obama movingly closed his State of the Union address by calling for national unity:
Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops. When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.
One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates — a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary — and Hillary Clinton — a woman who ran against me for president.
All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job — the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other — because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.
So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.
But what if, Mr. President, that young Seal team member who refused credit for the raid is gay and lives in Mississippi and is denied a job when he comes home because of his sexual orientation? Will you have his back then? If the mission is preserving the American Dream and its core principle of fairness and equality, as team leader, President Obama, shouldn’t you have the courage of your convictions and take immediate action? We can’t wait for the day when “fair” means fair for ALL American citizens.
Watch the State of the Union Address, read President Obama’s Blueprint for “An America Built to Last,” and read the transcript of the President’s remarks and see where you fit in the President’s plan.