This morning, I read that OUT Magazine named President Obama as its LGBT "Ally of the Year." Literally one minute later, Chelsea Manning called me from prison.
Hearing Chelsea's voice was a powerful reminder: President Obama may talk a good talk when it comes to gay rights, but his Administration's policies speak louder than his speech-writer's words, and they're detrimental to LGBTQ+ people around the world.
Chelsea is the Wikileaks whistleblower who exposed some of the U.S. government's worst abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. She's also a transgender woman. The Obama administration has aggressively prosecuted her, held her in conditions that the UN considers to be torture, and locked her away for a 35 year sentence in an all male military prison.
Chelsea was calling to give me an update about her current legal battle with Obama's Justice Department over something that seems simple: the right to grow her hair to the length of her choice. Military officials are currently requiring her to cut her hair to the Military's "male" standard, despite the fact this goes against recommendations from medical professionals regarding Chelsea's gender-related health care needs.
The Obama administration has previously supported appropriate treatment for transgender people in prison, but it appears as though they're actively reversing that position in order to single out and punish Chelsea. It's just the latest in a series of blatant attempts by the U.S. government to harass her and silence her important voice.
Thinking about Chelsea fighting for her basic human dignity from inside a sterile military facility, it was hard to swallow the parade of social media posts and headlines about the OUT Magazine cover. A heroic yet sensitive grayscale photo of the President graced the front page, and the article inside lauded his administration's support for the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," and for stricter hate crimes legislation.
It went on to call Obama's "evolution" on marriage equality "something to behold," quickly glossing over the fact that he maintained throughout his first term that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Much has been written about how the mainstream gay rights movement's focus on marriage, the military, and tougher hate crimes is continuously failing to address the needs of the most marginalized LGBTQ people, especially trans women of color, queer youth, homeless folks, immigrants, poor people, and people in prison.
But what I find most concerning about gay rights advocates putting President Obama on the "ally" pedestal isn't what his administration has failed to do, but what it's actively doing every day: pushing for foreign and domestic policies that endanger LGBTQ people, deepen our oppression, and contribute to the violence enacted against us.
The Obama Administration's foreign policy continues the work of the Bush Administration to expand U.S. imperialism and global dominance. In the process, it aids and abets some of the most repressive government regimes in the world, including many with deplorable human rights records, like Saudi Arabia, where LGBTQ people have essentially no protections.
Meanwhile, the President has thrown his full weight behind the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), a secretive global deal containing massive policy handouts for pharmaceutical companies that groups like Doctors Without Borders say will be devastating for global access to HIV medication and affordable healthcare, disproportionately affecting LGBTQ people in impoverished countries.
Finally, this administtion has dramatically expanded the U.S. government's mass surveillance programs, which pose a grave threat to the future of freedom of expression in general, but also amplify the oppression of people with marginalized gender and sexual identities for whom privacy is a matter of survival.
The juxtaposition of Obama's actual policies with all the buzz about his "historic" photo-op on the cover of the nation's most popular gay magazine underscores the reality that the mainstream gay rights movement does not speak for, or represent the interests of, the vast majority of LGBTQ people in the world.
As long as Chelsea Manning sits in prison; as long as the U.S. government continues to prop up dictatorships and push for economic policies that exacerbate global inequality; as long as the police and FBI show us again and again that Black Lives don't matter, that trans lives don't matter, that we don't matter; President Obama is not my ally.
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