Like nearly 60 percent of Americans who approved of his job performance, we’re going to miss President Obama something terrible. It’s not just by contrast to the seminar in narcissistic personality disorders that is about to replace him, although the contrast couldn’t be sharper. It’s because, in his no-drama way, Obama reshaped the conversation about LGBTQ equality. He settled some long-standing problems and pushed the envelop on emerging issues. In the process, he also healed a lot of wounds that society had for decades inflicted on us.
How much Trump–or more to the point, the extremists that he has surrounded himself with–tries to undo Obama’s legacy remains to be seen. But the fact is, no matter how much Trump’s antigay appointees try to undo Obama’s good deeds, they will never be able to do so fully. In part, the machinery of government isn’t all that amenable to change. More to the point, there will be political consequences that were not there before. Even Republicans have to acknowledge that gay people exist and that heavy-handed persecution will not play with voters.
So, as Obama gets ready to leave the White House to a less august occupant, here’s a reminder of five of his biggest contributions to us.
1. Marriage equality
The credit for marriage equality goes to the couples and attorneys who waged the battle at the local level for more than two decades. But our biggest success made it across the finish line thanks to some presidential pressure. Obama’s “evolution” on marriage was always a fig leaf, a political calculation until the time seemed right to strip it off. But when Obama did announce his support for marriage, he did so with a vengeance. He threw his weight behind state ballot measures and publicly lectured the Supreme Court about how it should rule. He directed the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act before the Court. And when victory was finally won, Obama ensured that it flowed through every crevice of the federal government. At the time, his actions had a kind of about-time feel to them, but in retrospect, these were strong, determined actions meant to reshape history. It worked.
2. Ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Driving a stake through the heart of institutional military homophobia took a deft touch on Obama’s part. That the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell wasn’t finalized until 2011 seemed like more foot-dragging at the time, but Obama signed the repeal before he was halfway through his first term. The political dance that had to take place with the military and Congress was excruciating to watch, but in retrospect seems remarkably rapid. What exactly happened behind the scenes will emerge as memoirs are written and historians start digging, but one important sign that we do know is that Obama was willing to tell the leaders of the military branches to take a hike if they weren’t on board with his decision.
3. Appointing gay federal judges
Obama went out of his way to appoint a record number of openly gay judges to the federal bench. That may seem boring, but it is vitally important for two reasons. For one, these judges will be shaping policy for years to come. Secondly, if we are ever to have an openly gay Supreme Court justice, he or she is probably going to come up through the federal judiciary. When that day finally arrives (post-Trump), we may still be thanking President Obama.
4. Advancing transgender equality
When Obama took office in 2009, transgender rights were hardly mainstream. But the Obama administration aggressively promoted them. Besides signing an executive order preventing workplace discrimination by federal contractors, Obama also took on the even more politically explosive issue of the rights of transgender students. His support for them led to his being sued by 11 states for ordering schools to let transgender students use the bathroom or locker room of the gender they identify with. While the Trump administration will undoubtedly roll back both policies, they won’t be able to roll back the clock. Obama showed what the future is going to look like and reminds us that setbacks, even the most painful ones, are temporary. His pardoning of Chelsea Manning as one of his last acts as president was, in part, an acknowledgment of the problems that Manning has endured trying to embrace her identify.
5. Promoted gay rights abroad
Obama did not have a problem calling out other countries’ lack of respect for their gay and lesbian citizens. He said he had “no patience” for countries that attacked people on these grounds. In a thumb-in-the-eye to Trump’s bosom pal, Putin, Obama pointedly named gay and lesbian athletes to be U.S. delegates to the Sochi Olympcis. He publicly lectured Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at a joint press conference about Kenya’s homophobic policies. He pointedly met with LGBTQ activists during his trip to Cuba. Along with his Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Obama set a standard for how future administrations will view gay rights as part of the spectrum of human rights.
This list is just a sampling. There are plenty of other examples, from lifting the travel ban on people with HIV visiting the U.S. to the symbolic importance of having the White House lit in rainbow colors. Of course, there’s still a lot of unfinished business that Obama never got around to. But compared to where we were when Obama took office in 2009, we have made incredible advances.
We ought a debt of thanks to Obama for his role in making the world a better place.