Gay Rights Have Soared Under the Obama Administration

On Tuesday, the White House held a transgender policy briefing for advocates from TPOCC, the Trans People of Color Coalition, and NCTE, the National Center of Transgender Equality. The hearing covered how the U.S. government is currently addressing transgender issues (and LGBT issues in general) internally — with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Social Security Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the U.S. Department of Justice — as well as externally, with the State Department and USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Marriage equality in several states and the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell aren't the only positive developments that LGBT Americans have seen since Obama took office. The progress has spread to many departments and agencies in the U.S. government.

Ken Carroll, HUD’s director of the Fair Housing Assistance Program Division, noted at the briefing that those with LGBT status are not protected from housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, which, as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in terms of renting, selling, and negotiating housing, loans, etc. — despite the department’s recent findings that high rates of housing discrimination occur in the LGBT community. In the past, HUD has recognized LGBT discrimination as sex discrimination (citing Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins) and last year issued the LGBT Equal Access Rule, which includes a provision requiring housing funded by HUD or subject to a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration to be made available without regard to, without inquiring about, and without taking into account actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. The rule also includes clarification of the terms “family” and “household” so as not to exclude people because of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.

Stacy Rogers, the Social Security Administration’s senior adviser to the acting commissioner, received a standing ovation due to the recent SSA policy change that allows transgender people to change their gender on their Social Security records with much more ease. Under the previous policy, many transgender people were unable to change the gender on their records due to the restrictive sex-change surgery requirement. Now, they can change the gender on their records by providing a passport or birth certificate with the changed gender, or a physician’s statement that appropriate medical treatment has taken place, whether that may be a surgery or not. 

Pierce Blue, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s special assistant and attorney adviser, stated that the commission is beginning to track gender identity discrimination since the recent results from its unanimous Macy v. Holder decision. The EEOC ruled in Macy v. Holder last spring that discrimination against transgender
people is considered sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and they are thus protected under that civil rights law.

Two representatives from the Department of Justice spoke: Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, and Jocelyn Samuels, principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights. They reiterated the fact that discrimination based on gender identity is sex discrimination and mentioned the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act passed with bipartisan support in Congress in 2003, but it wasn’t until last year that the Department of Justice announced the rules for complying with the law. The rules relevant to the LGBT community require prisons to “incorporate unique vulnerabilities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming inmates into training and screening protocols,” address LGBT issues, and specifically discuss how prisons should treat transgender inmates (in terms of housing, showering, etc.) – a pressing issue since transgender women in men’s prisons are up to 13 times as likely to be sexually abused as other inmates.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act created a new federal criminal law in 2009 — a victory for the LGBT community, as 10 years had passed since an earlier version of the act was introduced in 1999 — prohibiting violent acts committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person. (George W. Bush, by the way, publicly opposed this hate crime prevention act.)

The U.S. government also extends its influence to promote equality for LGBT people in other countries. Ajit Joshi, acting senior LGBT coordinator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Pat Davis, director of the Office of Global Programs at the U.S. Department of State, spoke about some of the ways that the government advances the human rights of LGBT people worldwide.

The State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor launched the Global Equality Fund in December 2011. This fund offers small grants to local civil society organizations, supports law reform efforts to increase legal protection for people who identify as LGBT, and strengthens the ability of local organizations to document human rights violations targeting LGBT people. Additionally, the Global Equality Fund provides emergency and preventative assistance to civil society organizations that are under physical threat or are unable to operate freely without serious harassment due to their mission of advancing the human rights of LGBT people.

USAID has also begun to strengthen LGBT civil society organizations as well as train LGBT individuals to participate more fully in democratic processes. The representative from USAID cited work that the agency has done in order to further LGBT human rights in Colombia, Kenya, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and more.

Although LGBT issues remain controversial in Congress, the U.S. government under President Obama has made substantial progress in promoting the equal treatment of people who identify as LGBT both at home and abroad.

But, obviously, there is still room for improvement.