President's Record On LGBT Issues Gets Mixed Reviews

This week, President Obama formally proclaimed June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. Advocate and writer Kenyon Farrow and R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a group that advocates for gay and lesbian rights among conservatives, discuss the current challenges facing the LGBT community.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

What does it really mean, that pronouncement by the World Health Organization that cell phone use could lead to brain cancer? We'll hear from one of NPR's health blog contributors. She's been reporting on this.

But first, this week, President Obama formally proclaimed June Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. It's the third year for the proclamation, which the White House says marks steps toward greater equality for the LGBT community.

The president takes credit for a number of moves to expand gay rights since his inauguration. In our weekly political chat today, we wanted to talk about what are really the LGBT issues of the day? What are the biggest challenges facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans? Is gay marriage still a front-burner issue, for example?

To have that conversation, we've called upon R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. That's a group that advocates for gay and lesbian rights. He also happens to be a captain in the Army Reserves. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studio.

And Kenyon Farrow is with us from New York. He's an LGBT activist, speaker and writer. He's co-editor of the upcoming book "Stand Up! The New Politics of Racial Uplift," and he's the former executive director of a group called Queers for Economic Justice. And he's with us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to you. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Captain R. CLARKE COOPER: Thank you.

KENYON FARROW: Thank you.

MARTIN: I wanted to start with a list of some of the talking points offered up by the White House. The president takes credit for extending hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners; signing the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, that's the policy that prevented openly gay men and women from serving in the military; and increasing funding for HIV/AIDS prevention. And together with first lady Michelle Obama, hosting an anti-bullying conference at the White House in order to address the high rate of suicide among gay teens. That's something we talked about in the segment that just preceded this one.

So I wanted to ask each of you how you would assess President Obama's performance so far. Clarke, I'll start with you even though you're part of the loyal opposition.

COOPER: Well, despite him, despite President Obama, repeal of don't ask, don't tell did succeed. But there were those on his side of the aisle that even said he didn't put his shoulder against the wheel on getting this done. Thankfully, the legislative appeal has been completed, and he did sign the legislation.

Unfortunately, we're still battling the Obama administration in court on the legal challenge that was brought up with Log Cabin Republicans to the feds, on challenging the constitutionality of the statute of don't ask, don't tell. So there has been, you know - obviously, where we weren't completely thrilled. But there certainly wasn't the full court press that some thought there could have been or might have been.

MARTIN: Kenyon, what about you? How do you assess this administration's performance on these issues?

FARROW: I see it as so-so. I think - one of the things that I think - that have been most, I think, interesting to me is the passing - the legislation allowing for people to choose who gets to visit them in the hospital. And even though it's been touted as a specifically LGBT win, when you actually look it, it actually allows for any people who are single or otherwise unpartnered to be able to make decisions about who gets to kind of visit them, and make decisions for them in a time of medical crisis. And I think that that is kind of a win for everybody.

Secondly, I also think the focus on increasing funding for HIV prevention, treatment and care is very important. And so I think seeing those increased funds - which if you look at the eight years under the Bush administration, the Centers for Disease Control was flat funded for those eight years. And so seeing those increases, I think those things are really, really important.

And then lastly, yesterday, the White House also announced that it was going to be putting some additional funding focusing on homelessness in LGBT youth. When we look at the national statistics, we see that conservative numbers say about 25 percent to, some people say, 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And most of them are black and brown youth.

And so homelessness is an issue that I'm very much concerned with in the LGBT community. And it's not often framed as a part of the sort of national agenda. But I think when we look at numbers like that, that it really is a crisis. And so I'm interested in seeing a decrease in homelessness among LGBT youth.

MARTIN: OK. I want to talk more about that - what you see is the most important agenda items for right now. But I did want to ask, we've talked about how the administration has performed on these issues, the Obama administration. But what about, how do you think the dynamics have shifted as now Republicans have taken the majority in the House? And how do you think - if at all - this has affected the discussion around LGBT issues - since these are your people, Clarke?

COOPER: Sure. So what's shifted internally in the Republican Party is those Republicans that are either self-identified as pro-equality Republicans, or supportive Republicans of the LGBT community, have had a little bit more freedom to do so now than maybe in more recent years. And what I mean by that is, is we just were talking about repeal of don't ask, don't tell. During the last Congress, when lobbying was being ginned up on our side of the aisle to find allies for that, the Republicans who sought to vote for a repeal of don't ask, don't tell, found that they weren't being whipped by their party leaders to not vote that way. So there was a little bit more latitude and freedom in being able to vote in favor of repeal of don't ask, don't tell.

Since then, I've talked to members on our side - fellow Republicans - who said, you know, what's - has there been any political fallout for you? And they said no, actually, not.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with R. Clarke Cooper, he's executive director of Log Cabin Republicans; and Kenyon Farrow, he's an LGBT activist, speaker and writer. We're talking about the challenges and opportunities facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community today.

And I wanted to talk about the right fight for right now. In recent years, a lot of the headlines have been directed toward the fight for marriage equality or same-sex marriage. And there are currently five states and the District of Columbia that permit same-sex couples to marry. Clarke, is it still the head of the spear for you? Is that kind of the...

COOPER: Well, in conservative circles, when we're talking about legislation, one that we keep - are kind of surprised that those Republicans who are supportive of civil liberty issues - is Employment Non-Discrimination Act, because it has a much more - broader application. Not everyone is married, not everyone wants to get married, just as not everyone wants to serve in the military.

MARTIN: Are you saying that for conservatives, employment discrimination, you see as the more important strategic target? Is that right?

COOPER: It does. Just based on the feedback that I've received from either party officials or elected officials, of their view. And again, these are people who have a much more global view. This isn't their only, sole issue. But they look at it from a gee, if there was an issue that could move quicker or have a greater support, why is employment non-discrimination not being advocated at a greater level or with more effort?

MARTIN: Interesting. Kenyon, what about you? What do you think the top legislative, and political and organizing, priorities should be right now?

FARROW: Well, I think that we would actually agree to some extent, in terms of the issue of jobs. I think that the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, I think, is very, very important. And I've also been disappointed that that also has not been pushed as one of the sort of primary issues by the national - the LGBT organizations in Washington.

But I also think in a context where the country is really focused on jobs, jobs, jobs, that we also have to look at the Employee Free Choice Act, I think, as a sort of companion piece. When we look at many of the states that prevent gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgendered folks, or folks who are still able to be fired for their identify, those are many of the sort of quote-unquote, right-to- work states, where it's also, you know, very difficult to do collective bargaining.

And because that's such a big part of the national discussion based on what happened in Wisconsin and Ohio, and so on and so forth, I think that actually looking at people who are able to work in unions, or people who are able to sort of collectively bargain, generally have higher wages, have more health care or better health care, and also are able to kind of serve in their jobs openly as LGBT folks.

And so I think we can't just look at legislation that, you know, has this sort of gay or lesbian or bisexual, transgender sort of stamp on it. But how are we also looking at other ways in which workers in general can be protected? And I think that - so looking EFCA and as ENDA as kind of companion pieces, to me, I think makes a lot of sense in this moment.

MARTIN: I have the feeling that that's something that you and Clarke do not agree about.

COOPER: No, that would a big problem.

MARTIN: I think that's where...

FARROW: I would imagine.

MARTIN: That's where the coalition probably takes a different direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I wanted to ask before I let each of you go, when you think about where we are as a country, I mean, there are so many different data points. On the one hand, as we were talking about earlier, the spate of teen suicides related around the issue of sexual orientation - just so shocking and so painful. On the other hand, you see in a number of areas like sports, a major push that you have not seen in recent years, against anti-gay slurs.

For example, we've heard recently of professional basketball players being reprimanded, and actually being hit with large fines, for uttering these kinds of slurs, and that's something that you didn't see.

COOPER: Well, the military's cracking down on that already - and implementation. And there's just been several cases where...

MARTIN: So when you put all that together - Clarke, I want to just start with you and then Kenyon, I'll give you the final word. Glass half full, glass half empty? You feel overall pessimistic, optimistic?

COOPER: Well, based on the major issue we were talking about today, I would veer toward optimism in the sense that there has been not just polling numbers, but also anecdotal experiences - that we've all had ourselves, or we are aware of from our colleagues - of just families, friends, neighbors, co-workers being better educated. And that's part of what pride month is about - is essentially, letting families, friends and co-workers know, look, this is a part of who I am. I'm not ashamed of this, just like I'm not ashamed of being gay. I'm not ashamed of being a Republican. This is what makes up my holistic self - and regardless of who you may be.

So in that sense, in a general sense, things have steered in a positive direction so that a kid growing up - wherever he or she may be - know that they're not alone, and that they can have a fulfilling life and choose the course for themselves.

MARTIN: Kenyon?

FARROW: Yeah. I think in terms of, you know, the country and sort of where it seems like people are in terms of their various points of sort of accepting LGBT people - and as, you know, an African-American and looking at the black community, I have seen kind of major strides even, you know, in ways that people like to think about the black community as more homophobic and whatnot.

And I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and that has not been my experience in my personal family, nor in the kind of larger community that I live in. But I'm also very much interested, you know, in the bread-and-butter issues, ultimately. Like, I still don't want to see the kind of income disparities that exist for - particularly LGBT people, black and brown folks in particular, that exists. I don't want to see the disparities in HIV rates.

And so when I barrel down on - acceptance is great, but I'm also concerned with, you know, the health and well-being and the ways in which people are able to actually sort of take care of themselves as also equally important. And until we sort of meet that gap, you know, I'll still be fighting.

MARTIN: Kenyon Farrow is an LGBT activist and writer. He's the author or editor of a number of books. He's the co-editor of the forthcoming book "Stand Up! The New Politics of Racial Uplift." He was with us from our bureau in New York. Here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio, R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. That's a group that advocates for gay and lesbian rights. He's also a captain in the Army Reserves. Thank you for your service.

COOPER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And thank you for joining us.

FARROW: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you.

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