What was supposed to be a "referendum" election, according to most political pundits, with voters focusing on Obama's first three years in office, has quickly become a "choice" election, with voters presented with two vastly different visions for America. The campaign, the two parties, and their candidates have given the electorate one of the most starkly different choices for voters in generations.
Yet the rhetoric, with mindless soundbites and talking points flooding the airwaves, has somehow muddied the water, especially when it comes to the reality of each candidate's record. That rhetoric has at times obscured, and at other times purposefully obfuscated, what that choice really means -- especially when it comes to basic equality, civil rights, and social issues.
Rhetoric vs. the Record
One of the favored talking points that conservatives like to direct at the LGBT community is that "Obama is just pandering for your votes with his support of marriage equality." This nasty bit of campaign rhetoric has sunk into the psyche of some fiscally conservative members of the community and our equality allies, giving them an easy out for voting against basic civil rights with the idea that "Obama hasn't done anything concrete for equality."
But a look beyond that rhetoric, going deep into the record of both sides, tells a vastly different story.
The GOP Record on Equality
That distracting and untrue GOP rhetoric on equality is meant to hide the abysmal record of the current, extremist Republican Party and the men on their presidential ticket, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, on social issues. The ever-malleable Mitt Romney has repeatedly found it impossible to stand up to the radical voices that now drive his party. If his constant flip-flopping and contortions during the campaign are any indication, his presidency would be a rubber stamp for dangerous, regressive policies put forward in this year's Republican Party platform, which literally had some sections on social issues written by Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, a certified hate group. The Republican Party platform opposes marriage equality and supports a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the "union of one man and one woman."
The platform also criticizes the Obama administration's decision not to defend the horrendous Defense of Marriage Act in court, attacks the judiciary for making pro-LGBT decisions in states, and makes its arguments using attacks that denigrate and discount the lives and families of LGBT people. Even the choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, who has one of the most anti-equality and socially extreme voting records in the Congress, further adds to a solid record of anti-LGBT positions.
The Obama Record on Equality
Beyond seeking to ease the consciences of those LGBT people who are fiscally conservative so that they can vote against their own interests, the "Obama doesn't care about gay people except for your votes" rhetoric is also meant to erase a long, solid record of movement toward LGBT equality by this administration.
While most people only talk about Obama's recent support of marriage equality or the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" as his lone accomplishments for LGBT rights, the record of the administration speaks for itself.
The administration's record on LGBT rights goes far beyond DADT repeal. Yes, he signed and implemented the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but he has also kept a vigilant eye on the process, including permitting military chaplains to officiate same-sex marriages where legal. Obama also signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, allowed transgender Americans to receive passports that reflect their gender identity without requiring them to show proof of gender-reassignment surgery, ended the Social Security Administration's gender "no-match" letters that unfairly targeted transgender citizens, and clarified the meaning of "family" to include LGBT relationships in order to help protect binational families threatened with the deportation of a same-sex spouse.
Beyond legislative action, Obama has moved quickly to include LGBT people and their rights in all areas of government, closing loopholes and long-held discriminatory practices that hurt many in the community. The administration announced the Department of Housing and Urban Development's new rule protecting against housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, created a National Resource Center for LGBT Elders, released America's first comprehensive plan to prevent and end homelessness (which included homeless LGBT youth), hosted the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention in America's schools, and announced a White House LGBT Conference Series to address issues affecting LGBT Americans (including health, housing, and safety),
The Obama administration has made many concrete moves that have huge impacts on the lives of LGBT people when it comes to government jobs, as well. Obama ordered the federal government to extend key benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, banned discrimination in federal workplaces based on gender identity, issued guidance to foster safer working environments for transgender federal employees, and ensured transgender veterans receive respectful care according to their true gender through the Veterans Health Administration.
When it comes to health care, the Obama administration has a record that goes beyond just enacting the Affordable Care Act, which contained many provisions that help the LGBT community's health needs. They clarified the Family and Medical Leave Act to ensure family leave for LGBT employees, promoted equal access to quality health care by enabling searches for health plans with same-sex partner benefits on Healthcare.gov, completed a first-of-its-kind Institute of Medicine study on LGBT health, included specific data on health needs of lesbian and bisexual women in the Health Resources and Services Administration's "Women's Health USA 2011" federal report, and ensured hospital visitation and medical decision-making rights for gay and lesbian patients. They even ended the discriminatory and sickening ban that prohibited people with HIV/AIDS from entering the United States.
The long record on fighting for LGBT rights goes beyond our borders, as well. The Obama administration led a United Nations measure to restore sexual orientation to the definition of human rights and created the first-ever U.S. government strategy dedicated to combating human-rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad.
Even the opposition's rhetoric about Obama just giving "lip service" to marriage equality for same-sex couples is completely false. One of the most important moves for our fight for marriage rights in the courts was this administration declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and announcing that they would no longer defend it in court. Beyond that game-changing move, Obama has endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act, a legislative effort to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, and supported lesbian widow Edith Windsor in her suit against DOMA. Even in his presidential proclamation of National Adoption Month, President Obama called for equal treatment for same-sex adoptive parents.
This long, detailed record of pro-equality moves by the Obama administration stands in stark contrast to the Republican Party, which has spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending DOMA in courts, opposed DADT repeal, criticized international involvement in LGBT human-rights abuses, and attacked LGBT rights on every front.
The Political Reality
What is amazing about the Republicans' rhetoric on LGBT rights is that they try to paint dueling pictures of the president's record on equality. On the one hand they seek to appease LGBT conservatives by saying he hasn't done anything for equality, and on the other they try to paint him as an advocate of the "radical homosexual agenda," to fire up the ever-shrinking group of social extremists who make up their current base. The very incongruent nature of those taking points should be the first sign that this rhetoric isn't based in reality in any way.
To be clear, there are times when the campaign and candidate rhetoric itself can be enlightening, like contrasting Ann Romney's "my real marriage" anti-gay dog-whistle speech with Michelle Obama's "proud Americans can ... boldly stand at the altar with who they love" convention speech. In fact, the content of the speeches and the inclusion of diverse faces and voices in the Democratic National Convention, compared with the erasure of, and at time open hostility to, LGBT Americans at the Republican National Convention, speaks volumes. Nearly every speech at the DNC has had multiple, substantive, policy-supported mentions of LGBT equality that were completely organic and turned into applause lines. That stands in stark contrast to the language of the RNC on equality, which ranged from openly hostile and demeaning to seeking to erase our families and lives from the conversation.
Elections are about debating what we want our country to be and where we want it to go. It's time to debate the issues based on the truth, not distortions. We can only have that debate if we cut through the rhetoric, remove the distractions, and talk about the real policies and records of the candidates. It may be easier to listen to the talking heads on TV spin their version of reality, but only by being an educated electorate can we really see the choice we have to make.