When Barack Obama walks through the doors of the White House for the last time as President next week, it will mark the end of an era for our nation.
From my seat in the United States Senate, I can attest that the last eight years have certainly not been free of strife or confrontation, to say the least. But despite all the political posturing and polarization, the past eight years have also shown us at our best. We have sought to build up our fellow citizens and fellow human beings instead of tearing them down, and made progress in the face of adversity.
Nowhere is the hope and promise of the last eight years better exemplified than in the progress we have made in achieving equality for the LGBTQ members of our American family.
The arc of the moral universe is long, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, but it bends towards justice.
In January 2009, when President Obama first took office, it was not a federal hate crime to attack someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Same-sex marriage was only legal in two states. LGBTQ people could not serve openly in the military, or access their partners’ survivor benefits or health insurance. They were anxious and unsure—should a crisis arise—about whether they would be allowed to make medical decisions for their families, or see them in the hospital during an emergency, or keep their home if their partner died.
For over two hundred years, the story of America has been one of striving to live up to our founding ideal “that all men are created equal.” Slowly—often too slowly—we have broken down the barriers that divide us; that say some of us are more equal than others. For the LGBTQ community, many of the biggest, most daunting barriers that they had faced for generations finally came down during President Obama’s administration. The millions of men and women within the LGBTQ community, who struggled for so long to be treated equally and enjoy all the same rights and opportunities as their fellow citizens, can attest to just how momentous the last eight years have been.
With the historic passage of the Affordable Care Act, it is no longer legal to deny health coverage to anyone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The President also decided that the government would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court, even before the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional. He took this path because he believes, as he said during his second inaugural address, “that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still.” And when the Supreme Court finally affirmed that “love is love” by ensuring marriage equality in every corner of our nation, President Obama declared it “a victory for America” and his administration moved quickly to implement the court’s ruling.
From my position at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, I have been privileged to work with the President and members of his administration to advance the rights of the LGBTQ community in Congress. We worked together to pass the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with new protections for the LGBTQ community. In an historic, bipartisan vote, we passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate to ensure employers could no longer fire someone for who they are or whom they love. And though the House failed to act on this legislation, President Obama issued an executive order in July 2014 that secured this right for the 28 million Americans working for federal contractors.
But President Obama and I both know that as long as anyone is scared to put their spouse’s photo on their desk at work, or fears being evicted from their apartment if they have a same-sex partner, then our nation has not come far enough or broken down enough barriers.
That’s why I have worked with my House and Senate colleagues, President Obama’s administration, and an extraordinary coalition of grassroots and civil rights groups to craft the Equality Act, landmark legislation that would extend the same non-discrimination protections that so many of us take for granted in employment, housing, public accommodations, and more to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
We are proud President Obama endorsed our bill, one that his White House described as “historic legislation that would advance the cause of equality for millions of Americans.”
When the new administration comes into office on January 20, we will face a White House that is indifferent at best and hostile at worst when it comes to LGBTQ rights. It’s a daunting moment, especially in the face of all our gains over the last eight years. But these new challenges only make it more important for Americans who care about the rights of our fellow citizens to keep fighting—not just to fiercely defend the gains we have made, but to continue pushing on for full equality.
On the day we introduced the Equality Act, I knew the struggle to pass it would not be an easy one. But I was convinced then, and I remain convinced today, that we will ultimately succeed. The arc of the moral universe is long, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, but it bends towards justice. But, it only bends when good people fight for justice. President Obama’s legacy on LGBTQ rights shows us that with hard work and struggle, we can bend the arc quite far in just a few years.
Now, it’s up to the rest of us to keep up the struggle, to do everything we can to ensure that justice reigns in our nation—and that every American, regardless of race, color, creed, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity, can live freely and equally in the eyes of the law.
Senator Jeff Merkley represents the state of Oregon in the United States Senate.