In his first State of the Union address, which focused heavily on economic concerns and bolstering the confidence of middle-class Americans, President Barack Obama touted his administration’s hate-crimes achievement and reiterated his support for repealing the military gay ban.
“This year I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are — it’s the right thing to do,” said the president during his hour-plus speech.
The pledge was seen by some as progress even as it dismayed others, especially after reports emerged earlier this week that the president might announce more specific intentions for the policy.
“I think there’s going to be an element of our community that will be disappointed because people were hoping he would lay out something more aggressive and substantive,” said Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United.
But Nicholson called it “a step forward” more because of the platform than because of the content of the speech.
“I think the simple fact that ‘don't ask, don't tell’ is being included in the State of the Union address, alongside the ongoing wars and the economy and health care, is an unequivocal signal that the issue is being raised on the administration's priority list,” he said. “Presidents don't typically throw out issues like this in the State of the Union if the intention is to hold off on them until the following year.”
Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire and a senior fellow at the Palm Center, shared that sentiment.
“That’s certainly a step beyond saying it in front of a bunch of gay donors,” said Frank, referring to Obama’s pledge to end the policy during the Human Rights Campaign fund-raiser last fall.
But Frank also registered some reservations.
“My concern has been all year that the president is dithering — that’s a political mistake and an operational mistake,” he said.
Frank noted that a vacuum of leadership on the issue could allow opponents to circle their wagons.
“People of bad faith can exploit the opening and turn this into a culture war battle,” he said, “and make no mistake, they can win this if people of good faith think they can coast along or show up every once in a while with a vague reiteration.”
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, urged immediate action.
“We applaud the president tonight for his call to Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" this year,” Sarvis said. “We call on the president to repeal the archaic 1993 law in his defense budget currently now being drafted, that is probably the only and best moving bill where DADT can be killed this year. As Rep. Patrick Murphy and Sen. [Kirsten] Gillibrand have made clear, this is the year to repeal the law.”
This is not the first time a president has mentioned LGBT equality in a State of the Union speech. President Bill Clinton called for employment nondiscrimination and hate-crimes protections in his 1999 address.
“Discrimination or violence because of race or religion, ancestry or gender, disability, or sexual orientation is wrong and it ought to be illegal,” Clinton said. “Therefore, I ask Congress to make the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act the law of the land.”
Ten years later, President Barack Obama signed that LGBT-inclusive hate crimes legislation into law.
“We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate,” Obama noted during his speech.
Obama also sounded aspirational notes of hope and resilience during his address.
“I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight,” he said. “Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We don’t allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.”
But for LGBT Americans, this year will be a game of wait and see.
As Frank said, “It remains to be seen whether action will be paired with words.”