As Obama settles into the White House, it’s difficult for me to feel like anything has changed. I still have to walk through the snow to get to class, I still have mounds of homework and I don’t feel any different physically. I feel a little more tired, I suppose. Yet from the way people have been carrying on for these past two weeks, it’s almost as if they expected Obama to be sworn in and immediately, they’d be free from debt or cured of cancer or perhaps ten pounds lighter.
A few things have changed, to be sure, but America has yet to see the true change we all expect Obama to accomplish. I was reminded of this as I perused Wikipedia a few days ago. I had just read an article about the political disagreement in Kalamazoo regarding housing discrimination against gays, and I decided to research exactly what rights queer individuals have when it comes to housing. Though thirteen other states have adopted provisions to protect LGBT people from housing discrimination, gays in the state of Michigan have no such protection. There is no federal protection, either.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits landlords from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, disability and whether or not a tenant has children. But the act’s neglect of sexual orientation has created a loophole for legal housing to discriminate against LGBT individuals and families. Despite the fact that it’s still incomplete, the Fair Housing Act has already been amended a few times. It didn’t include mention of gender discrimination on its list until, during a period of increased tolerance in 1974, women’s rights advocates in Congress managed to push it through. Kudos to the legislators — the mavericks, if you will — who overcame all sorts of opposition to pass an undeniably just law.
But it has to be more than a congressional effort. As he tackles the nation’s other concerns, Obama must add addressing the issue of gay rights to his list and galvanize a Democratic coalition behind the matter. He owes the LGBT community. According to CNN exit polls, 4 percent of those who voted in November identified as LGBT and 70 percent of them voted for Obama. To put that into perspective, the same polls show that only 2 percent of the voters were Jewish. Yet, courting the Jewish vote was near the top of the list for both of the candidates. Gay voters came out — forgive the pun — in droves to support Obama. It’s time that he paid that debt.
Unfortunately, Obama’s not off to a great start. His choice of the evangelist Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation was an affront to the millions of LGBT Americans whose basic civil rights Warren would prefer to deny. Warren’s Saddleback Church adheres to a fundamentalist variety of Christianity that espouses conservative social beliefs and condemns homosexuality. I understand the importance of giving both sides a voice, but perhaps Obama could have chosen a nonpolitical figure from his past, a more moderately conservative minister or even simply a speaker who might be uncomfortable with homosexuality but hasn’t publicly likened it to bestiality as Warren has.
But Obama has made some encouraging moves. Members of his “transition team” have met with influential LGBT figures to stay on good terms, but Obama must do more than pay lip service to gay rights. He needs to pressure Congress into amending the Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation. Furthermore, he must be mindful in his further appointments to equally include gays and lesbians in his administration with heterosexual counterparts.
Most importantly, Obama needs to set an example. The president is arguably the most powerful individual in the world, but he has more limitations than people tend to think. There’s only so much a president can really do, politically speaking. His biggest role is to provide Americans with a responsible, moral and intellectual model of leadership. Obama must show more Americans in both red and blue states that gays ought to be treated like everyone else. No matter how hard the evangelists may try, homosexuality will always exist.
After eight years of a role model who had little to offer other than choking on a pretzel, American’s will look to Obama to change the way they choose to see both themselves and the country’s issues.
As a nation, we have officially handed Obama the keys to the car. In the next few months, we’ll see how well he handles driving on the ice.
Matthew Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.