It seems like each time I write something about Barack Obama some variant of the following sentence is included in the first paragraph: The man knows how to deliver a speech.
Was there any real news to gleaned here? Well, maybe if you squint and look at it kinda sideways. Obama did use the word "transgender" once, the first time a sitting President has done so with major media coverage as far as I know. It may seem like a little thing to some, but Obama's use of the word may signal to Congressional Democrats that he wants a fully inclusive ENDA.
Obama's repeated use of the word "inclusive" was a signal to us, the LGBT community, and to transpeople in particular. He and his people know what LGB and especially T people understand the word "inclusive" to mean when it's used in the context of LGBT civil rights. Using "inclusive" was Obama's way of communicating his support for transgender inclusion in LGBT civil rights legislation to the community without actually saying it out loud. He even threw in a "gender identity" just for seasoning. It's a hell of a lot more than we ever got from Bill Clinton or any other President, but still a hell of a lot less than we deserve.
Why does it matter? It shows we're on his radar. Obama understands that as President and as an advocate of ENDA's passage, he must take a position on transgender inclusion pro or con and he knows he must communicate that position to us and to Congress. He did both artfully with this speech, but he also demonstrated that he's not quite ready to come out of closet with full-throated support for transgender rights yet.
The near-complete invisibility of trans people in this speech should not be surprising to anyone, and in fact was probably good political strategy given the timing. Obama gave the far right more than enough ammo with this speech, and neither he nor we would benefit from a strong public statement of support for transgender rights being used by the right wing to rile up their base against him and against us as Congress prepares to take on ENDA. Don't forget how the right wing used Obama's public statements on marriage during the Prop 8 battle to add his apparent endorsement to stripping same-sex couples of the right to marry in California. I doubt anyone on the Obama team wants to see anything like that happen again, and especially not while ENDA is still making its way through Congress. I strongly suspect that once hate crimes passes and the first legal recognition of transgender people in our federal laws is on the books, it'll become safer politically for the President and for us for him to express his support for transgender inclusion more openly.
He's close, but he's not quite there yet. Just as there are those who theorize that since Obama was in favor of same-sex marriage as an Illinois state senator and only started opposing it when he began his campaign for the US Senate, once he's successfully won a second term as President he'll come out strongly in favor of full marriage rights for gays and lesbians, I also believe that we'll see a much more courageous Obama on LGBT civil rights in general and on transgender rights in particular during his second term.
Does that mean we should let up on Obama until 2012? Hell no! And there's still Congress to consider, we know there's work to be done there. The more we can accomplish now in laying the groundwork, the easier the road ahead will be.
This was without question the most transgender-inclusive speech any sitting President has ever delivered and maybe even the most transgender-inclusive speech Obama has ever delivered. It just wasn't immediately obvious because our inclusion was slipped in through the rhetorical backdoor. We knew what he was talking about, but it's likely to escape the notice of many on the right. In the end, though, it really doesn't matter. Hearing the President say the T-word on television and talk about us might make us feel good for a moment, but that's not the goal here. The goal is pass an inclusive ENDA. The best way to make sure that happens is to not give the right wing an excuse to stir up anti-transgender bigotry.
I know, I know. I wanted more too, but I also understand why we can't have it...for now. Once ENDA is the law of the land, though, I'm going to start expecting a little more from him.