Last night’s State of the Union address brought a long list of tweetworthy moments, from President Barack Obama‘s wink at the crowd during a recap of the progress his administration has made to a snappy, unscripted comeback about winning his last two campaigns that silenced fussy Republicans.
But the 2015 speech also gave us a few truly pivotal moments, even if they only spanned a few words. Among them: the first time any president has ever used the words “lesbian,” “bisexual” or “transgender” in that address.
Here’s what Obama said (the full speech is available at Medium):
As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world. It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims – the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.
Many have noted that the president’s specific mention of transgender people might be the most impressive thing about this portion of his speech. While issues like marriage equality and military service have focused primarily on the rights of gay men, lesbians and bisexual people, trans people face a host of additional issues that their LGB peers don’t. These issues, like access to transition-related care, a still-intact ban on military service and disproportionately high rates of poverty and violence, deserve a place at the table. And if the President of the United States can’t be counted on to say the word “transgender” out loud before the nation, there’s an even smaller chance those issues will ever be solved.
National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling had the following to say about the inclusion of “transgender” in the address:
“In those years when we were not mentioned in the State of the Union, the President was still leading the way in advancing policies that have improved and saved transgender lives. Of course, the advancement of those policies is so much more important than a mention in a speech. But make no mistake, the President of the United States condemning persecution against transgender people is pivotal. It will empower trans people to stand taller and work harder to improve this country for all people. That he has also said bisexual for the first time in a state of the Union Address is very significant as well.”
“His mention of us makes us know that he meant us when he talked about Americans. When he spoke about children, he meant transgender children too. When he spoke about immigrants, he meant transgender immigrants too. When he talked about service members and veterans, he meant the transgender people too.”
This was not the president’s first nod to LGBT issues in a State of the Union address. In last year’s speech he included “sexual orientation” in a list of traits that must be respected in order to uphold dignity and equality, and in 2013 he advocated for equal treatment of service members and their families, whether gay or straight.
But in three words, the president told a crowd of bleeding-heart liberals and die-hard Tea Partiers alike that there’s more out there than just “gay.” Many in the audience, particularly some older or more right-leaning folks, may have never heard the words “bisexual” or “transgender” before outside of “radical” social movements to which they’ve turned a blind eye. And there’s certainly not enough discussion or recognition in Congress that there’s more than one kind of queer person — and more than one kind of “gay rights” issue (read: there’s more than marriage equality!).
I’m also not saying that three words signal a revolutionary transformation in the president’s strategy for bringing about equality to all LGBT people. We have miles and miles to go in protecting LGBT people at work, allowing transgender people the right to serve in the military, providing for LGBT youth in poverty, ensuring safe and affordable healthcare for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, demanding respect for transgender people in public facilities and private services, ending the epidemic of violence against transgender people (especially trans women of color), outlawing discrimination that occurs under the guise of religious liberty, providing an inclusive and LGBT-affirming education to every student in America, and so many more issues that fall outside the mainstream narrative of “gay rights.” We’ve almost got marriage equality; that doesn’t mean we’re done.
But acknowledging to a room full of people, many of them still vehemently opposed to our very existence, that we’re here, we’re queer, and our rights matter? That’s a start, and I’ll take it.