By Lucas Grindley
Originally published on Advocate.com January 28 2014 10:32 PM ET
There were two surprises for LGBT viewers in this State of the Union. First, activists were disappointed to hear no mention from President Obama of legislation banning workplace discrimination. But with just days before the Olympics begin in Russia, he appeared to take an indirect swipe at Vladimir Putin's antigay policies.
"We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation," the president said, framing his annual list of priorities as a demonstration of values. "And next week, the world will see one expression of that commitment — when Team USA marches the red, white, and blue into the Olympic Stadium — and brings home the gold."
Russia has recently passed a series of antigay laws, including one that bans any mention of being LGBT while in the presence of minors. Expected on the Russian parliament's agenda after the Olympics is legislation that would take children away from their LGBT parents. Meanwhile, the antigay climate has sparked widespread fears about the safety of LGBT athletes or fans while in Sochi, which come in addition to concerns about security due to terrorism threats.
Painting the Olympics as a testament of the U.S. belief in equality was one of two direct mentions of LGBT Americans in the speech. The first came while outlining some continuing priorities. "Across the country, we’re partnering with mayors, governors, and state legislatures on issues from homelessness to marriage equality," he said. Even that minor nod to the fight for equal rights raised hackles of the likes of Peter LaBarbera from the paradoxically named "Americans for Truth about Homosexuality" who went to Twitter to accuse Obama of "conspiring" with Democratic attorneys general to "subvert" the "rule of law" — a reference to states where attorney generals and governors refuse to defend constitutional amendments that ban same-sex marriage. Virginia's leaders are the latest to join that trend.
But those hoping for a State of the Union address that confronts Republicans over stalled legislation banning workplace discrimination were left disappointed on Tuesday.
Obama never mentioned the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and he surely didn't announce a long hoped for executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors. Instead, when it came to the workplace, Obama focused on calls for raising the minimum wage and for equal pay for women.
"It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode," he said in one of the most memorable lines of the night.
Setting the stage for what is becoming a Democratic campaign issue in the midterm election, Obama said he will issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal workers to $10.10. "As a chief executive, I intend to lead by example," he explained.
When it comes to banning discrimination, though, Obama has in the past said he won't issue an executive order because it would undermine efforts to pass ENDA through Congress. The Senate passed that legislation, but it has not passed through the House, where Speaker Boehner refuses to bring it up for a vote. Meanwhile, LGBT federal workers continue to go unprotected at companies such as ExxonMobil.
Adding a layer of mystery to the omission of ENDA from the speech is the curious case of an embargoed fact sheet distributed by the White House before Obama started speaking. The fact sheet touted tough talk about "Workplace Equality for LGBT Workers" and a direct call on the House to pass the legislation. But none of that made it to the final version.
If the fact sheet's version of events had come true, the State of the Union might have included a mention of "gender identity" and "transgender workers" — who were otherwise left out of the remaining mentions in the final draft.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, said after the speech that ENDA is still among the president's top priorities.
"The State of the Union isn’t a comprehensive list of all of the president’s positions or priorities," he told The Advocate. "The president has long supported ENDA, and its inclusion in our fact sheet reflects the president’s belief that Congress needs to act. It’s time to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of categories protected by federal law against employment discrimination. No American worker should lose his or her job simply because of who they are or who they love. Last year, a bipartisan majority of the Senate passed ENDA, and the president renews his call for the House to do the same."
Log Cabin Republicans executive director Gregory T. Angelo responded to the address with a criticism shared by LGBT activists across the aisle.
"While the president's calls for a more equal nation are welcome," he said in a statement, "there is a profound irony in the absence of any mention of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act for LGBT workers tonight, and likewise in the president's threat to exercise unilateral executive actions with the explosive potential to ignite class warfare, while at the same time remaining silent on signing a common-sense executive order barring federal workplace discrimination: an empty promise to LGBT Americans that stands unfulfilled after six years. That's one re-run we're tired of seeing."
Those invited as special guests at the State of the Union included Jason Collins, the NBA player who made headlines when he came out at the end of his last season. He was sitting in the box with first lady Michelle Obama.
Among the guests of some Republican members of Congress was Willie Robertson, the famed son of Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson, who made a series of high-profile bigoted comments about LGBT people. Sen. Lindsay Graham posted a photo on Twitter of him with Willie Robertson and his wife, proud of his role in bringing them to watch the speech.