Dear Mr. President,
Sweeping rhetoric aside, it wasn’t love at first sight. As a social studies teacher, I was delighted by the possibilities of hope and change, but I found something a little opportunistic about a relatively young politician cutting the political line and surrounding himself with Kennedys. I was skeptical to say the least.
But you were persistent. Your intellect, humor and charm warmed me, and you clearly had an LGBT game plan, one that I recognized long before your “evolution” happened publicly. In June 2009, you issued a directive on same-sex domestic partner benefits and opened the door for the State Department to extend a full range of benefits to same-sex domestic partners of members of the Foreign Service. In October of that same year, you signed the long-stalled Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. In December, 2010, backed by studies conducted by the Pentagon, you showed a willingness to spend significant political capital by repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I admired your long game ― methodically chipping away at the wall of homophobic policies ― and found you to be the savviest of quarterbacks. I was smitten.
Your administration sought input from national LGBT non-profits like Treatment Action Group and Family Equality Council, organizations on whose Boards of Directors I serve, to ensure as part of the Affordable Care Act that insurers could no longer turn someone away just because he or she is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Obamacare also made it easier for people living with HIV and AIDS to obtain private health insurance and Medicaid. Most notably, you developed and released the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States. Your administration changed passport and student loan application forms to become more gender inclusive. Next time I fill out my children’s governmental forms, I will not be forced to complete a box labeled “mother” like I did last time. Now, families like my own are allowed to re-enter the country as the unit that we are. These gestures may have gone unnoticed by the general public, but not by those of us who for decades have felt the simple desire to be treated like everybody else.
For Easter in 2011, my partner and I took our twins to the White House Easter Egg Roll. As a formerly closeted man who fearfully came of age during the Reagan years, I had a near out-of-body experience watching my two-year old children frolic carefree on the lawn of the White House and in the shadows of history. I felt a sense of belonging I had never before imagined, and I left the South Lawn with renewed optimism in the direction of our country. At that moment I felt the need to become active in your campaign for reelection, something I hadn’t considered since college. So I made nightly phone calls to swing states, talking to prospective voters about how the Obama administration had quite simply changed my life. I will never forget the voter from Scranton, Pennsylvania who told me she “couldn’t stand having that nigger in the White House.” I remember marveling at how the election of a black man to the highest office in the land had not moved us into a post-racial world. Neither of our fights is yet won.
I brought my twins to D.C. to witness your second inauguration in 2013; they turned four that very day. While they innocently thought that everyone had gathered at the Capitol for their birthday, our family did receive a present on that bitter cold morning just the same. I was floored by your mention of Stonewall in the same breath as Seneca Falls and Selma – incredulously asking everyone around me “Did he really just say that?” Yes, the President of the United States just gave legitimacy to my struggle as a gay man, and you’re damn right I shed a tear or two in appreciation. Our family returned to D.C. later that winter to be part of a rally at the Supreme Court when the Windsor case was being heard. This was more of a pilgrimage than a road trip. When I was a young man, I couldn’t fathom being comfortable enough with my sexuality to bring a boyfriend home, let alone think about marriage, the most ‘normal’ of American institutions. Now I was a grown partnered man, bringing his kids to the site where history was being made. Your administration’s decision to no longer defend the indefensible DOMA, paved the way for the court’s eventual decision. I just had to be in the room where it happened.
In December 2014, I was honored and surprised to receive an invitation to a White House Christmas reception. Even my mother, who is not a supporter, couldn’t contain her pride. Walking the halls of the White House with a glass of champagne that sparkled in equal measure with my awe, this teacher truly felt that he was in The People’s House. Unable to resist the urge to finally meet you in person, I strategically positioned myself along the receiving line. I cannot imagine that you remember having met me, but frequently find myself secretly hoping that you do. I gave it my best unscripted shot: “I know a lot of people blow smoke up your ass because you’re the President, but I want to keep it real. I’m a gay dad, and my husband is probably behind me snapping photos right now. Our twins were born the day after your inauguration. Our lives have benefitted immeasurably because of your leadership. Anytime the recalcitrant Congress tries to thwart you, I want you to think of me and my family. You are making a difference.” You put your hand on my shoulder and said, “Thank you. That means the world to me.” But really, you had me at hello.
The last two years of your administration have, for the LGBT community, demonstrated a stronger sprint to the finish line than American Pharaoh at Belmont. On the day the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergerfell v. Hodges (2015), you directed that the White House be illuminated in the colors of the gay flag, a gesture so breathtakingly unbelievable that it left me scouring the Internet to determine its veracity. The photo went viral, sending a message of surreal optimism to gays in all corners of the world. But you didn’t stop with this rainbow exclamation point. This past year, you opened up the military to transgender soldiers and took aim at those who would deny transgendered students access to the bathroom they deem appropriate in public schools. One day transgender intransigence will be in the trash heap of history - next to segregated lunch counters - and we will look back to your actions as the tipping point. As a final salvo, this past June you directed the National Park Service to dedicate Stonewall, the site of riots and arrests of innocent gay people which is widely seen as the dawn of the modern gay rights movement, as the first National Monument focused on LGBT history. We’ve taken our children several times since, each time with a cone from Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, to reflect on just how sweet progress tastes.
Under your stewardship, the United States – long a nation where people viewed the Bible as more of an operations manual than the Constitution – has become an LGBT city upon a hill. If we indeed have to be taught to hate, you have demonstrated - through your family and actions - that by modeling acceptance and tolerance, love can be learned. Incrementalism may not be as flashy as a tweet, but it has proven to be an incredibly effective strategy for change. For your vision, for your resolve in the face of unfathomable obstacles and detractors, and for inspiring everyone to aspire to greatness, I and my family thank you.
See you Tuesday night at your Farewell Address in Chicago.