When President Obama came out in support of LGBTQ lives and in favor of marriage equality in a May 2012 interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, he became the first president to connect his policy to his Christian faith in a way that substantively benefitted the LGBTQ community.
“I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue,” Obama told Roberts of his decision to affirm marriage equality. “[Michelle Obama and I], we’re both practicing Christians. And when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf but it’s also the golden rule, you know? Treat others the way you’d want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids. And that’s what motivates me as president.”
Obama’s affirmation came on the heels of his instructing the Department of Justice to not defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned the marriages of same-sex couples. The president considered the act unconstitutional. In 2011, the president also signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the ban on LGBTQ people serving and marrying openly in the military.
Military veteran, queer womanist theologian and activist Dr. Pamela Lightsey was at the forefront of the movement to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and worked against the GOP and the National Organization for Marriage’s efforts to use President Obama’s support of the LGBTQ community against him in the 2012 election.
“American opposition to same-sex marriage was about 45 percent but within the Black community it was somewhere between 60 to 70 percent,” reports Lightsey. “So we were really nervous about his chances of winning another term having expressed his support of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. In 2012, President Obama was elected with 95 percent of Black Protestant [Baptist] support.”
In his second term, President Obama continued his Christian support of the LGBTQ community. Just last year, as the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, legalizing marriage equality in the country, the White House lit up with all of the colors of the rainbow in celebration. Soon after, the Episcopal Church formally approved religious weddings for same-sex couples.
Episcopal priest and scholar the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney shared the impact of Obama’s public stance on other Christians. “I watched people reduce then end vociferous opposition to changes in laws and public policy,” she says. Though she doesn’t credit Obama with beginning the cultural shift taking place in many religious circles, “Mr. Obama was part of that,” Gafney concedes.
This year, President Obama instructed the Department of Justice to vigorously defend the rights of transgender people to have access to bathrooms in public spaces—an issue that erupted in North Carolina when Governor Pat McCrory signed a law limiting access. McCrory has lost his bid for re-election and was widely criticized for signing the law.
“President Obama’s support of LGBT rights, both in concrete and symbolic ways, sent a strong message to countries around the world that hold laws against LGBT people,” says Eliel Cruz, the Executive Director of Faith in America, an organization dedicated to ending religious based bigotry towards LGBT people.
Even as 80 percent of white evangelicals just voted into the presidency an anti-LGBTQ candidate who has promised to repeal the advancements that President Obama’s administration have made, Lightsey believes there’s still evidence of growing support for LGBTQ rights.
“Major denominations have lifted their restrictions on LGBT marriage and ordination. Where denominations have resisted, the membership within has taken stances in defiance of church policies,” Lightsey says. “I know we often use young people’s affirmation to speak about the shift in acceptance but in reality many cis-hetero elders are allies in the movement so now over half the adult population in the U.S. supports LGBT rights.”
Cruz still believes that President Obama’s stance has had a global positive impact on the Christian community.
“Most of these countries, particularly in the western world, are influenced by Christianity to enact draconian laws that lead to the incarceration, or death of LGBT people. President Obama’s pro-LGBT stance as a world leader and a Christian showed an alternative route to those who professed anti-LGBT beliefs and blamed their faith for it,” says Cruz.
Despite what comes next for the community and the country under the next administration, President Obama’s legacy as a leader in Christian support for the LGBTQ community remains.
“President Obama was the first president who supported LGBT rights because of his faith and not in spite of it,” Cruz says.
“The landmark milestones LGBTQ people reached during the Obama Administration will always be associated with him, both those he championed and those that followed in their wake,” adds Gafney.