As we head into LGBTQ Pride month, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” stands apart from President Obama’s other significant legislative wins. While the stimulus, health care overhaul, and Wall Street reform were all major achievements in their own right, none of them addressed a single progressive constituency in the way that repeal did. The battle to end the military’s gay/bi ban was also more hard-fought than most other single-constituency legislation, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was so popular it cruised through Congress during Obama’s first couple weeks in office.
I point this out not to gloat but rather to offer a point of comparison. The reason the singular achievement of repeal was so consequential is because it set the LGBT movement apart in terms of enduring legislative and judicial wins during Obama’s presidency, while other progressive movements have had to rely on executive actions that have faced legal challenges from Republicans at every turn.
Without repeal, none of the equality advances that followed could have come nearly as quickly. Indeed, it was just two months after Congress repealed the military’s gay ban that Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Department of Justice would stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, a law prohibiting the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. But if the ban had still been on the books with the administration still defending the policy in the courts, how could the Justice Department have justified ending its defense of DOMA? And if the administration continued defending statutes that denied equal treatment to gays in both the military and marriage, President Obama’s embrace of marriage equality during an election year almost certainly would have faltered. Equally as important, LGBT advocates arguing the watershed case U.S. v. Windsor at the Supreme Court wouldn’t have had the added weight of the federal government joining their push to gut the law.
As I note in my boo Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency, “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal broke the logjam on LGBT rights and became the difference between Barack Obama’s presidency being simply an important milestone in the equality movement versus a monumental turning point in history for LGBT rights. Repeal was not only universally popular among Obama’s progressive base — unlike the stimulus and health care reform at the time — it produced virtually no negative backlash, culturally, politically, or otherwise.
The achievement of repeal was also, in and of itself, a mini miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue — accomplished just four days before the session ended, Congress went home for the holidays, and Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the remainder of Obama’s presidency, thereby ending any promise of progressive legislative advancements. It all came down to a Hail Mary piece of stand-alone legislation that was dreamed up and announced on the fly during the lame-duck session of 2010 just after the Defense funding bill to which repeal was originally attached stalled in the Senate. Even then, the new repeal bill almost didn’t reach the Senate floor but for a bi-partisan budget deal that fell apart at the last second. While then-Majority Leader Harry Reid pieced together a new deal, he slipped the repeal vote into a Saturday slot that had originally been reserved for his must-pass budget bill.
None of this is to suggest that Barack Obama wasn’t pro-LGBT. He was. But what will undoubtedly be viewed as one of his greatest domestic legacies wasn’t initially the priority that legislative goals like the $800 billion stimulus package and health care reform represented from the early days of his presidency. Rather, the marked advancements were the result of a domino effect of forward progress initiated by the most improbable of legislative achievements.
Over the course of Obama’s presidency, many progressive movements have asked a big-picture question: How did the LGBT movement do it? One explanation, though not solely determinative, is that LGBTQ activists got a signature piece of legislation through Congress in the first two years of Obama’s presidency, when both he and congressional Democrats were at their most powerful.
As the 2016 election season grinds toward the selection of President Obama’s inevitable replacement, it is a pointed reminder of just how consequential a president’s early years in office truly are and the fact that, barring some unforeseen event, their power naturally wanes over time. Barack Obama will go down in history as presiding over a tipping point on LGBT issues, but it was a combination of spirited activism and an unlikely legislative win that gave him the space to become the gay rights champion he always wanted to be.
This article was originally published in Daily Kos.