(The Root) — Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: LGBT rights. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: According to polls, attitudes about gay Americans have shifted dramatically over the last two decades. In 1974, 74 percent of Americans said they would not elect a qualified gay person as president. By 1999 that number had fallen to 37 percent. In 2001, 57 percent opposed same-sex marriage. Today 48 percent support it. Since it first became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, nine other U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage. There have been other noticeable shifts.
In 1997, comedian Ellen Degeneres' announcement that she was gay was deemed newsworthy enough to land her on the cover of Time magazine, and proved detrimental to her career. Her eponymous sitcom was canceled shortly after. Today Degeneres is one of the most successful talk show hosts in the country and popular enough to have landed an endorsement deal with cosmetics powerhouse CoverGirl. She is among a number of celebrities who have felt comfortable enough to publicly acknowledge being gay in the last decade, something that would have been unthinkable for many of them years ago.
President Obama's own evolution on this issue has mirrored the nation's — to some degree. According to a campaign questionnaire from 1996, he supported same-sex marriage early in his career before telling mega-church Pastor Rick Warren in 2008, "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian … it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix." In the same interview, he expressed support for civil unions.
First-term accomplishments: Next to student loans, LGBT rights has turned out to be an issue on which the Obama administration has enjoyed one of its most significant list of accomplishments.
As I have written before, the president has appointed more openly gay elected officials than any of his predecessors. He instructed the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — calling it unconstitutional — signed the repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, pushed for greater protections for gays and lesbians abroad and directed the Department of Health and Human Services to order hospitals to permit visitation and decision-making rights for gay and lesbian couples, one of the primary concerns of LGBT couples unable to marry. But perhaps most significantly, last year he became the first sitting president to express support for same-sex marriage. (The White House recently served as the backdrop to its first public same-sex marriage proposal.)
Second-term hopes: The case can be and has been made that the president has actually accomplished more in his first term for the LGBT community than he has for any other minority group, including black Americans. That being said, as previously noted in this series, his nominations of a number of openly gay men and women to the federal bench have given some hope that he could appoint the first openly gay Supreme Court Justice. But before that, as the high court is poised to hear one of its first cases addressing same-sex marriage, some are wondering if the president may put the judicial power of the White House behind the issue, the way he has on issues such as affirmative action. (Read more here.) Whether he does or not, the president has already insured that his work on LGBT rights will likely be among the most memorable aspects of his presidential legacy, and in years to come many LGBT Americans may credit this president in the same way many black Americans look back and credit President Lyndon Johnson on civil rights today.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.