White House's Transgender Meeting

The Office of Public Engagement just held its first meeting focused on transgender issues. But with Obama stalling on LGBT issues, will his base fall in line? Nancy Goldstein reports.

04.30.11 11:50 AM ET

How should we view Friday’s historic meeting between White House staff and transgender activists—the first ever by the Office of Public Engagement (OPE) to focus specifically on transgender issues? Is this Change You Can Believe In? Or simply a gesture intended to Make a Core Constituency Feel Heard at a Politically Sensitive Time? After all, much of President Obama’s April agenda (such as his fiscal policy speech mid-month) seemed geared toward patching things up with bummed-out progressives and removing obstacles (see his rebuttal to birthers earlier this week) to his recently announced re-election bid.

Ideally, the meeting will move the White House toward more federal protections for LGB and T people. A recently released report based on the results of the country's largest transgender discrimination survey describes the toll that federally sanctioned discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare, and education takes on transgender people. Respondents were four to five times more likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population, and twice as likely to be unemployed. A full 26 percent of those surveyed had lost a job because they were transgender; 47 percent reported not being hired in the first place. Forty-one percent had attempted suicide.

It would be easier to evaluate Friday’s meeting if the public had access to certain basic facts. Like which activists and leaders were invited, or which staffers actually attended. Or what was on the agenda. Or whether it was a “listening” meeting, where members of the administration simply gather to hear a group’s concerns, or an “action” meeting that lays out steps toward change. Or what anyone said, or decided. About anything. But the White House, which reportedly named some of the officials attending when it spoke with the Washington Blade earlier this week, would not name names on Friday. A spokesman affirmed: “This meeting, like most OPE meetings, is closed to press and off the record.”

Candidate Obama promised that he would be a “fierce defender” of LGBT rights. But as president he’s done little until these past six months to fulfill his campaign promises, except under duress.

Attendees contacted for comment either did not return repeated calls, or did not go on the record. That’s not surprising. When it takes the White House over two centuries to finally ask someone out one-on-one, it’s unlikely they’ll do anything to jeopardize their chances for a second date.

Still, this kind of opacity doesn’t play well coming from an administration that hawks its commitment to transparency. Nor does it allay fears that the White House’s invite will turn out to have been more symbol (“We’re listening”) than substance (“And now we’re actually going to do something”).

Candidate Obama promised that he would be a “fierce defender” of LGBT rights. But as president he’s done little until these past six months to fulfill his campaign promises, except under duress—and least of all for transgender people. This is not to diminish the significance of Obama being the first president to appoint openly transgender people to posts in his administration, or the announcement earlier this week that the United States Department of Labor will now “explicitly prohibit work place discrimination on the basis of gender identity within the department." But the administration’s primary achievement, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, does nothing to ameliorate the status of transgender people, who are still not permitted to join the military services.

Meanwhile, the legislation that many transgender activists believe would do the most to help transgender people—the Inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would end legalized discrimination against LGB and T people, federally—was never brought to the floor by the House leadership during the last Congress. It was shelved in favor of repealing DADT.

It’s no clearer how other parts of the president’s base will fare on his Will You Still Love Me in 2012 tour—whether the president’s sudden desire to demonstrate that he’s listening will result in action. But Obama and his administration were quite eager to be seen alongside the 10,000 young environmentalists who flooded D.C. in mid-April to take part in the largest grassroots training in history, protest Obama’s environmental polices, and tell him to be tougher on corporate polluters. This is a group that also gave a lot of money and time to whipping up excitement over candidate Obama, only to feel burned and betrayed.

Maybe it’s because Courtney Hight, the co-director of the Energy Action Coalition, which helped organize the gathering, spoke with The Washington Post the day before her White House meeting. In particular, she chatted about her disenchantment with the president she had worked for, first as the former Youth Vote Director for the state of Florida during the 2008 campaign, and then at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

And voila. President Obama, who had not been slated to attend the meeting, made a surprise stop. “Meeting with 11 of our leaders and hearing our concerns with Obama's energy policies was, I think, the first time that Obama and his staff realized they might need to think about a base they don’t normally have to worry about,” Hight said.

Afterward, a White House spokesperson spoke effusively about how much the president appreciated the opportunity to meet with Hight and her peers. Press was in attendance, and participants were free to talk.

Nancy Goldstein's work has appeared in venues including the Guardian, The Nation, NPR, Politico, Salon, Slate, the American Prospect, and The Washington Post, where she was an Editor's Pick and the winner of the blogging round during their Next Great Pundit Contest. You can follow her on Twitter at @ nancygoldstein.