I once believed in the change he said he would bring. But that was seven years ago. Now, just before I moved to Washington, D.C., I happily sold off the unread copy of President Barack Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that had been collecting dust on my shelf.
Last month, Out Magazine featured Obama on its cover, naming him “Ally of the Year” for what CNN called “his progressive stance on LGBT issues.” This accomplishment makes him the first sitting president to be photographed for a publication by and geared toward non-heterosexual readers.
Looking at the glossy black and white portrait on the cover, I find Obama to be well-aged, even regal. The lines of his face tell stories of his two administrations.
But there’s another word that comes to mind: fraud.
On Nov. 4, 2008, when Obama was elected as America’s first black president, I was one of the many people with tears running down my face as I waited for him to deliver his victory speech. That night, he stood in Chicago’s Grant Park and said these words: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Some of us were convinced an unbreakable hope had finally arrived in America. Seven years later, questions bombard my mind. It’s true that the most supreme office in the land doesn’t have automatic executive power to dismantle oppression. In a fantasy world, the Obama presidency would be the omnipotent B-613 agency we see in Scandal. Realistically, after the 2008 recession, the 2011 Occupy movement, and the 2014 government shutdown, millions of marginalized Americans and undocumented immigrants sense a dangerous exile from the American Dream.
For Out Magazine to salute Obama is an insult to history, in the ignored narratives of trans and queer people who commenced a movement nearly half a century ago, to the people who aren’t just scholars and griots of these times, but are descendants of them.
No one has said it, but here’s the truth: Obama has been recognized by white gay and lesbian people for being in their corner.
His presidency’s greatest accomplishments for them have been the passage and signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policies, and his announcement of his support for marriage equality in 2012. When he said the word “transgender” in his 2015 State of the Union Address, Time Magazine called it “a historic reference” and “a big deal.”
But his advancements for queer and trans people of color are invisible. Maybe they’re still floating around in the community organizing side of his brain, or maybe he’s paused his evolution. Several trans people I know who work in organizing and policy have received important letters from the White House bearing a message from Obama and his signature, but encouragement isn’t enough.
I cannot claim Obama as an ally. He ordered Secret Service to escort trans activist Jennicet Guittrez out of the 2015 White House Pride Reception after she protested against deportation of Latino undocumented immigrants, specifically those who are transgender. If he thought she was a disruption in his house, the truth is a disruption brought about the movement for queer and trans liberation. Disruption helped get him in office.
He has never addressed this year’s slayings of over 20 transgender people in this country, most of them black and Latina trans women. He has never uttered the names of Islan Nettles, Mia Henderson, Zella Ziona, or Tamara Dominguez, yet he can easily mourn for Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown at press conferences in the Rose Garden.
Obama lives in the same house as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden; the latter two fellowshipped with speeches at a recent Human Rights Campaign event, agreeing that legislating humanity for transgender people is the next historic frontier for basic civil rights. The memes of Obama with different hairstyles and remixes of his “if folks wanna pop off” quote are entertaining, but they do not regain trust. Evidence of his violence towards trans women of color and additional complacency is appearing more often towards the end of his administration. It is not his responsibility to snap his fingers and make everything suddenly better for all experiencing anti-trans violence, but like many people who claim solidarity, he must focus on the most vulnerable.
Yes, Obama committed fraud several years ago when I believed him to be for the people. Perhaps more unlearning will arrive once his second term is over, when his advanced freedom education will not be beneficial to senators, congresspeople, or a cabinet.
Today, the people I know aren’t saying “Yes We Can”; they are chanting “Not One More.” That is a power unmatched by any president or ally.