Looking back at LGBT gains and ahead at challenges

As the year ends and along with it Democratic dominance, now is a good time to take stock of progress made by the Obama administration and 111th Congress on behalf of LGBT civil rights, spurred by queer activists, advocacy groups, bloggers and allies.

In the foreseeable future, with the Republican and Tea Parties at the reins of Congress and all politicians eyeing the 2012 elections, no federal legislation or initiative that promotes equality for queer people can be expected.

In October 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was enacted. The bill expanded the existing federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

A week ago, President Obama signed into law the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the odious Clinton-era policy that barred lesbians and gays from serving openly in the armed forces.

In between these two landmark civil rights legislation, the 22-year HIV/AIDs immigration ban was lifted; the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program was extended; the Family and Medical Leave Act was expanded to include gay employees taking unpaid leave to care for their children; domestic violence protections was redefined to include LGBT victims; benefits were extended to same-sex partners of federal employees; diplomatic passports and other benefits were issued to the partners of gay foreign service employees; job discrimination based on gender identity was banned throughout the federal government; and the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development were instructed to allow LGBT visitation rights and counter LGBT housing discrimination respectively.

The Obama administration also reversed a Bush-era policy, signing a United Nations declaration that calls for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Last week, the U.S. government worked to reinstate a reference to sexual orientation in a U.N. resolution that condemned extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions (the General Assembly’s human rights committee had removed the reference from last month). U.N. Ambassador Rice also successfully advocated for the accreditation of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Since taking office, President Obama has appointed more openly LGBT officials – about 150 agency heads, commission members, policy officials and senior staffers – than any previous administration. He is the first president to release LGBT Pride proclamations and host an LGBT Pride Month celebration in the White House. He bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King, the same honorific bestowed on Rosa Parks.

No matter what one thinks of Mr. Obama, his administration and his party, it cannot be denied that progress has been had. Nonetheless, many of us are justified in protesting that often our fierce advocate seemed absent and when a few of us bravely held his feet to the fire – as he had requested – had the audacity to scold.

Most of all, while some lesbians and gays benefit from the administration’s initiatives, most of us do not. Certainly not those at the margins – transgenders, queers of color and low-income LGBTs. Policies and promises that will truly make a difference in our lives remain unfulfilled: a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act; repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; and immigration reform which includes LGBT families.

Now is a good time to look back and acknowledge some gains but we have a long way to go.

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