Duke student and activist Jacob Tobia plans to deliver a letter to the President at tomorrow’s White House LGBT Pride Reception asking for him to pick up the pen and sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors against LGBTs; he won’t be the only invitee making that request at this event.
This past April President Obama refused to sign an executive order that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by employers with federal contracts. This Friday I will be attending President Obama’s annual LGBT Pride Reception at the White House, and I plan to give him the following letter asking him to reconsider that decision:
First off, thank you for the warm invitation to attend your annual LGBT Pride Month reception at the White House. I don’t quite know how to express just how honored I am to be here with you, but perhaps it will suffice to say that I will be telling my grandchildren about this moment over and over until they can repeat the story to me by heart.
Secondly, I wanted to thank you for the visionary president you have been. As president of the United States, you have done more for LGBT Americans than any other president in history: You have brought about the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, you have affirmed that LGBT rights are human rights; and most recently, you have come out as the first president in our nation’s history to affirm gay marriage. Under your presidency and through your leadership, LGBT Americans have made innumerable strides toward a more equal world, but there is still work to be done.
This is why I wanted to write you today. As a junior at Duke University and a native North Carolinian, I wanted to write to you on behalf of young people and college students across the state. On May 8, one day before your historic statement about gay marriage, North Carolinians overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, an amendment to our state constitution that makes not just gay marriage but any form of legal recognition for LGBT couples unconstitutional.
As North Carolinians, we have seen firsthand what happens to the rights of LGBT individuals when they are put up to a popular vote; furthermore, as students of history, we know that leaving the question of civil rights up to individual communities has rarely worked. That is why school integration took so much longer than it should have, because in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, President Eisenhower refused to enforce the decision and left integration up to local school boards. History teaches us over and over again that when you allow local groups and organizations to make the decision about whether or not to protect fundamental rights, you allow them to discriminate.
The same is true of companies in our country. Companies in the United States should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and allowing any popular vote on the matter is equivalent to perpetuating discrimination against LGBT individuals. Accordingly, we must have federal employment nondiscrimination legislation (such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA) that protects employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The reality, however, is that that kind of legislation will take some time.
This is where you can make a real difference in our country right now. Currently, 22 percent of employees in the United States work for companies that have contracts with the federal government. By issuing an executive order that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all companies that have contracts with the federal government, you can protect millions of talented, productive, and passionate employees in an instant.
We also want you to know that this is something that universities in North Carolina do already. Duke and UNC Chapel Hill may be rivals, but one thing we agree on is that we both protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Why do we do it? No one is making us, and there is no law saying that we have to, but as institutions we choose to protect our LGBT employees because we realize that it is not only good business but the right thing to do. As institutions that share contracts with the federal government, an executive order preventing discrimination against LGBT employees would reaffirm policies and values that we already hold dear.
Furthermore, we want you to know that if you do choose to issue an executive order that protects LGBT employees from discrimination, we, like millions of Americans across the country, will stand by your side in November. Recent studies have indicated that 73 percent of likely voters in the 2012 election would support this kind executive order. Accordingly, your supporters in North Carolina and across the nation will fight for your presidency and your vision of America even harder, confident in the knowledge that for the next four years we will have a president who values and supports all Americans.
This past month I found out that my father was laid off. Now my family faces the daunting reality of losing our health insurance, and my father faces the many anxieties that come with unemployment. But the fact of the matter is that regardless of how frustrating it is to be laid off, my father was laid off in a way that was more or less fair. He wasn’t laid off because of he’s the son of Lebanese immigrants, or because he’s Catholic, or because he has a history of back problems; he was laid off simply because his company couldn’t afford to pay his salary anymore. The sad reality in our country is that for so many LGBT Americans, this is not the case. On top of the hardship that my family has already gone through, I cannot imagine how we would cope if my dad were laid off because of who he is.
Mr. President, not only do we live in a state where LGBT families have been made unconstitutional, but we live in a state where we can be fired simply because of who we love or how we identify. For many of us who are about to enter the job market, the fact that we can lose our livelihood because we are part of the LGBT community is a concern that is all too real. Through the stroke of a pen, you can begin to change that; through the stroke of a pen, you will bring our nation yet another step closer to true equality.
Director of LGBTQ Policy
Duke Student Government
Duke University ’14
UNC Young Democrats
UNC Chapel Hill ’13
College Democrats of North Carolina
Duke University ’13
UNC Chapel Hill ’13
Editor, Lambda Magazine
UNC Young Democrats
UNC Chapel Hill ’13
UNC Chapel Hill ’12
P.S. Can you tell Secretary Clinton we said hello? She won’t answer our texts…
I first met Jacob when he was one of the cast of Duke’s production of The Laramie Project last year, and met up again at the Point Foundation conference honoring its scholars, past and present. On September 12 we, along with hundreds of other members of the community, attended the Duke and Durham: Love=Love Candlelight Vigil , just before the NC Senate voted to place the discrimination amendment on the May 2012 ballot. He wrote an eloquent letter to the NC General Assembly about its vote.
While we’re still shell-shocked by our basic relationship rights being determined at the ballot box in NC on May 8 (and with no help from the President’s campaign on the ground to fight it), I applaud Jacob and his peers for expressing in the letter what so many of us feel that this President can easily do with a pen stroke at much less political cost than, for instance, his “coming out” for marriage equality. This effort, while people work to elect a Congress that will pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, will enable many LGBTs to come out of the closet to advocate for their rights in states that they can still lose their job for having a picture of their partner on their desk.
By the way, I don’t know how the White House determines who receives these invites aside from sheer political calculus. As one of the thorn-in-the-side, Cheetos-stained-PJ-wearing bloggers, it’s expected that you’re not on the favorite peeps list. Along with many of my blogger peers, I often drew the ire of LGBT supporters of the President for “pushing him” in numerous Blend posts on LGBT rights issues that had been sitting in the queue. Better yet, I was accused of setting up the downfall of the President over LGBT rights. I’m not sh*tting you; the hysteria in some sectors of the LGBT community, given the President himself asked to be held accountable for the promises he made while running for office, was pretty galling. Even so, I received an invitation to the WH celebration of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, something I declined (I was recovering from major surgery at the time).
My guess is that the reception will be a mix of the Beltway insiders, those die-hard supporters who slammed me, state and local activists, as well as those who bucked the President all along the way. It’s pretty obvious that in 2012 the White House is in dire need of the LGBT vote (as well as donor dollars and supportive press), so I am under no illusion that this year’s invitation to the reception is because they really, really like me. Most online or offline activists have limited power to effect change (we aren’t elected officials with a vote), don’t have a ton of money, and have a questionable, unquantifiable amount of influence — how does one measure these things anyway? When does your “star” fall from the sphere of influence? Bottom line – everything is political, isn’t it?
I have already started my fade away from the scene — my health battles are profoundly affecting my blogging and offline activist output. I am now fighting to remain gainfully employed as my disability worsens, so it’s gratifying that young people in the movement like Jacob are making noise and gracefully making a difference. We need that energy to push, regardless of who is in the White House or sitting in Congress, for full civil equality.