Not Always A 'Thunderbolt': The Evolution Of LGBT Rights Under Obama Much has changed during the Obama administration — including the legalization of same-sex marriage. The president praised that Supreme Court decision, but activists have not always applauded him.
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Not Always A 'Thunderbolt': The Evolution Of LGBT Rights Under Obama

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Not Always A 'Thunderbolt': The Evolution Of LGBT Rights Under Obama

Not Always A 'Thunderbolt': The Evolution Of LGBT Rights Under Obama

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Obama's years in office have seen a flowering of LGBT rights. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the president's own role in that transformation.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: A year ago, President Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden hours after the Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. It was the stunning culmination of a long, often halting journey.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.

HORSLEY: At times, Obama has seemed less like a trail blazer hurling thunderbolts than a weathervane, merely reflecting the shifting political winds. He'd campaigned as a fierce advocate for gay rights, but disappointed some activists early on.

Richard Socarides, who had been an adviser on gay rights to Bill Clinton, complained Obama was missing in action in the push to end the military ban on openly gay service members.

RICHARD SOCARIDES: They didn't want to repeat the mistakes that President Clinton made by trying to move too quickly on gay rights. And I think that they became too cautious.

HORSLEY: Obama acknowledged that frustration during his first Pride reception seven years ago.

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OBAMA: I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough.

HORSLEY: But the president's defenders say what looked like foot dragging on don't ask, don't tell was actually careful groundwork. Tobias Wolff, who advised Obama on LGBT issues, says the president had to win support from both the military and the Senate before he could make a lasting change.

TOBIAS WOLFF: The story that got told was that somehow the president had to be dragged along unwillingly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

HORSLEY: Attorney Mary Bonauto, who argued the marriage case before the Supreme Court, agrees that despite a rocky start, the White House showed its commitment to gay rights in countless smaller ways like housing assistance and hospital visitation.

MARY BONAUTO: They put LGBT people into We the People on a scale that had never happened before.

HORSLEY: And then there was the president's own very public evolution on same-sex marriage. When he first ran for president, Obama went only as far as supporting civil unions. But after Vice President Biden took the plunge during the re-election campaign four years ago, Obama went on national television to announce he'd changed his mind, too.

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OBAMA: I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.

HORSLEY: To conservative critics, like Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, the turnaround was a bitter bait and switch.

PETER SPRIGG: If Barack Obama had actually laid out in full the LGBT agenda he was going to pursue back in 2008, I think he would never have been elected president.

HORSLEY: By 2012, public sentiment had already shifted in support of gay marriage. But even if the president was just mirroring public opinion polls, adviser Wolff says it was a major step politically.

WOLFF: In one day, he turned the conventional political wisdom on its head.

HORSLEY: Far from a liability, the president's embrace of same-sex marriage helped mobilize young supporters. In his second inaugural, Obama wove the push for gay rights into a broader civil rights tapestry, stretching from Seneca Falls and Selma to Stonewall.

In this final year, the administration's been even more aggressive, battling for transgender rights. Ensuing North Carolina over its new bathroom law, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke directly to transgender people.

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LORETTA LYNCH: We see you. We stand with you. And we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.

HORSLEY: A vivid symbol of that inclusive spirit came on the night of the Supreme Court's marriage decision when the White House itself was lit up in rainbow colors. For longtime adviser Wolff, it was an emotional moment.

WOLFF: It said to over 10 million Americans, myself included, who had felt like an unwelcome presence - it said, you belong. And we're proud of you. And more to the point, we're proud of ourselves for being a part of bringing this moment to fruition.

HORSLEY: And just maybe, that was Obama's plan all along - to create the space for a national evolution on gay rights. Richard Socarides, who was so critical early on, recalls the story Obama liked to tell about FDR. After meeting with labor activists in the 1930s, Roosevelt supposedly told them, I agree with you. Now make me do it.

SOCARIDES: No one questioned that Barack Obama's heart was always in the right place on gay rights. And he just needed the pressure that we put on him and the political support. What seemed like someone who was not willing to act so boldly - to now we see it's probably one of the most important parts of his legacy.

HORSLEY: Obama predicted as much during that first Pride reception seven years ago. He told the sometimes impatient activists - by the time he left office, quote, "you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration." Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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