Presidential Pride Proclamations: A measure of presidents and progress

President Barack Obama has for the second time issued a proclamation in honor of Pride Month. Only one other president—Bill Clinton—has ever done so. A comparison of their proclamations suggests there’s been some progress in LGBT civil rights between the two administrations, but also highlights areas of little or no change.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton

President Barack Obama has for the second time issued a proclamation in honor of Pride Month. Only one other president—Bill Clinton—has ever done so. A comparison of their proclamations suggests there’s been some progress in LGBT civil rights between the two administrations, but also highlights areas of little or no change.

President Clinton issued the first “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” proclamation in 1999, the third year of his second term, and another in 2000. President George W. Bush issued no Pride proclamations, making Obama the first president to issue a Pride proclamation in the first year of his presidency. Obama was also the first to include bisexual and transgender people and proclaim “LGBT Pride Month.”

Clinton’s first proclamation noted that gay and lesbian Americans were serving “openly and proudly” in the federal government. In his second, he specified that “more openly gay and lesbian individuals serve in senior posts throughout the Federal Government than during any other Administration.”

In 2009, Obama went further, stating that he was “the first President to appoint openly LGBT candidates to Senate-confirmed positions in the first 100 days of an Administration.”

Reaction from the LGBT community to Obama’s first proclamation was lukewarm, however. Other than the federal appointments, the only other accomplishment he mentioned was his support of a United Nations effort to decriminalize homosexuality around the world.

In other areas, Obama’s latest proclamation reflects modest changes since the Clinton era.

Clinton, writing after six years in office, noted in his first proclamation that his administration had banned sexual orientation-based discrimination in the federal civilian work force and in the granting of security clearances.

Obama’s 2010 proclamation speaks not of non-discrimination policies for federal employees but of the need for equal benefits. (Obama has added gender identity to the discrimination protections for federal employees, but did not mention that in either of his Pride proclamations.) In June 2009, Obama directed federal agencies to determine what benefits they could offer to same-sex partners of federal employees under existing law. In June 2010, after the agency information had been reviewed by the Office of Personnel Management and Department of Justice, he signed a memorandum ordering the extension of those benefits. They include the same benefits as for opposite-sex spouses except for health insurance and retirement benefits.

Obama’s 2010 proclamation also spoke of his memorandum requesting an end to discrimination against LGBT people in hospital visitation policies and of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) proposals to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in core housing programs. Neither the hospital nor HUD rules have gone into effect yet, however—they are being written and should soon be available for public comment.

Clinton had in both proclamations stressed the need to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that, at the time, included sexual orientation but not gender identity. Obama, in his 2009 proclamation, reiterated the need for strengthened hate crimes laws, and by 2010, was able to say he had signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, inclusive of crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

On some issues, however, the proclamations show minimal to nonexistent change.

Both of Clinton’s proclamations called for passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) that, at the time, included sexual orientation but not gender identity. Obama’s proclamations have repeated the call to end employment discrimination. An employment nondiscrimination bill inclusive of both sexual orientation and gender identity is pending in Congress, but its prospects are uncertain.

Clinton’s 1999 proclamation also devoted an entire paragraph to the need to protect students from discrimination and harassment, and it praised the guidance issued by the Department of Education to explain federal prohibitions against sexual harassment based on sexual orientation.

In 2009 and 2010, however, Obama is still reiterating the need to provide LGBT youth with safe environment in which to learn, but he mentioned it as one item in a list of other to-dos and included no relevant accomplishments in that area.

A few issues in Obama’s proclamations were nowhere to be found in Clinton’s.

Clinton, who in 1996 had signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), did not mention marriage equality or federal relationship recognition. Obama, however, spoke in his first proclamation of the need to enact civil unions and in his second of the need to repeal DOMA.

Clinton’s proclamations also overlooked the military’s ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers, which he had promised to repeal, only to settle on the compromise later known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama has, in both his proclamations, stated his support for repealing the ban. His 2010 proclamation came the day after the U.S. House and the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to overturn the ban, pending the outcome of a Department of Defense implementation study.

Clinton’s proclamations did not speak of HIV/AIDS, even though he had made proclamations in honor of World AIDS Day since his first year in office and had increased funding for AIDS research, among other measures to combat the disease.

Obama, in his 2009 Pride proclamation, did mention the ongoing need to fight HIV/AIDS. In 2010, he touted the lifting of the immigration ban on persons with HIV/AIDS and his renewal of the Ryan White CARE Act, the largest federally funded AIDS program.

Clinton also made no mention of adoption rights for LGBT people, whereas Obama in both proclamations said we must work to ensure such rights. In 2010, he made a point of recognizing LGBT mothers and fathers.

In Clinton’s 1999 proclamation, he recalled the beginnings of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement at the Stonewall Inn in New York, noting that it had just been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Stonewall was again mentioned in his 2000 proclamation and in Obama’s 2009 one, on the 40th anniversary of the event. In 2010, however, Obama did not mention Stonewall, but placed Pride Month in the context of the “great, unfinished story” of equality for all Americans.

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