On Tuesday, President Barack Obama “postponed” a long-standing appointment with Russian President Vladimir Putin, basically to express the United States’s pissed-off feelings toward Russia lately. In addition to Russia's decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, one of Obama’s other primary explanations for this move was particularly unfounded.
"I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them," Obama told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, the evening before he announced the cancellation.
Okay then, Obama.
Sure, Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation, spelled out in plain English here, is disappointing news for the human rights and LGBT movements. But America's own very slow progress toward national acceptance of the LGBT community is equally as disappointing.
Yes, the elimination of the Defense Against Marriage Act was a great step forward, but now? In the words of one lawyer, “it’s raining lawsuits” – across the country, same-sex couples are challenging state-supported bans on gay marriage. And Pennsylvania’s example proves that it’s not necessarily going to be an easy fight for LGBT folks to win.
After one PA county began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, state governor Tom Corbett responded “with force,” accusing Attorney General Kathleen Kane of abrogating her duties by refusing to defend the state’s ban on gay marriage.
The state Health Department also filed a petition seeking a “cease and desist” order against the official issuing the licenses. Although same-sex marriage is no longer federally illegal, many states continue to deny its legitimacy, because they’re legally equipped to do so.
And what about the United States’ basic protections for the LGBT community people, in the workplace and at school? Federally speaking, there is no protection. Hopefully, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act will soon be passed, adding federal protection against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
But as of right now, it’s up to individual states to decide whether their anti-discrimination policies will extend to encompass sexual orientation and gender identity. And as you can see from this chart, not many states have done so.
Then there’s the problematic situation of LGBT youth, who are five times more likely than heterosexual youth to avoid coming to school because they feel unsafe. Again, no federal civil rights law protects against harassment based on sexual orientation. There’s an Equal Access Law in place that should require all public schools to allow kids to form extracurricular groups – including Gay-Straight Alliances – but that law isn’t always abided by. My co-worker, Holly, was unable to launch a Gay-Straight Alliance at her PA public high school because her principal feared it would “just be a way for gay people to get together and hook up."
Finally, in June the Pew Research Center released “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” and the news was not all good. Fifty-eight percent of all LGBT Americans say they’ve been subjected to homophobic jokes at one point, and only 19 percent feel as though society wholly accepts the LGBT community.
For the transgender community, the situation is even worse. After reviewing the study, Huffington Post’s Gay Voices blogger Brynn Tannehill wrote that “the transgender community is standing on the edge of a cliff.” No statistically significant results could be found for transgender individuals specifically, due to the very small sample size of respondents. Tannehill pointed out that not many Americans know a transgender individual personally, making it far more difficult to accept that specific community than it is to accept the rest of the LGB world. “The trans community doesn’t have an Ellen,” she wrote, alluding to Ellen DeGeneres, ranked by respondents to Pew’s study as the second-most important public figure in terms of advancement of LGBT rights. Barack Obama was ranked first.
Obama and DeGeneres are clearly appreciated by the gay community, for good reason. They’ve paved the way for the gay rights movement in the U.S., and made it more socially acceptable to talk about and be a part of.
But no matter how well Obama gives a speech, he cannot single-handedly shape the United States into a warm, fully accepting home for LGBT folk. To achieve that reality, we’ll need a lot more legislation and regulation at the state level.
Going back to Obama's statements about Russia, he said earlier this week, "I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”
Listen up, Obama. We appreciate your support of the LGBT community, but scolding Russia vaguely about its homophobic policies will not necessarily help our movement in anyway. Until the day it is fully and federally illegal in the U.S. to discriminate against any member of the LGBT community in any setting – including the office, the classroom and the church altar – we need to focus on our own movement toward social equality.
What do you think of America's treatment of the LGBT community and Obama's stance against Russia? Let me know on Twitter: @mollyduerig