Obama Morehouse Speech: Was the President Unintentionally Transphobic?


Over the past week, the gay and lesbian community has been abuzz about the commencement speech that President Obama gave at Morehouse College last weekend.

In his speech, Obama urged the graduates of the all-male college to "keep setting an example for what it means to be a man. Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner." And when the crowd began to laugh at the suggestion, the president wagged his finger, ever so slightly, as if to say, "y'all, I'm serious about this." Later, as he discussed the long history of racial discrimination faced by Morehouse graduates over the past century, he went on to say that gay and lesbian Americans also know the "sting of discrimination" particularly "when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share."

Those are pretty powerful words coming from the president, and as I listened to the speech, I wanted to be excited. I wanted to jump up in the air and laud the president for his defense of gay and lesbian Americans. I wanted to celebrate how far we've come in reconciling the gay community and the black community, communities that are too often seen as mutually exclusive. And I wanted to celebrate the president's continual courage in standing up for the equality of gay and lesbian relationships.

But something was holding me back. As a boy who wears high heels and has spent his life trying to get away from masculinity, I couldn't get over the first line that seems to have been ignored in the fanfare — "Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man."

The more I listened to it, the more that line began to sting. Because the truth is, I don't want to "be a man." And what does it mean to "be a man" anyway? Does it mean that I have to wear only men's clothing? Because I'm not very good at that. Does it mean that I have to play football and drink a lot of beer? Because I'm only good at one of those activities. Or does it mean that I have to accept the masculinity that society has forced on me — a masculinity that is so often violent? Because I'm not too good at that either.

So what did Obama mean when he suggested that the graduates should set an example for what it means to be a man? The more I think about it, the more I think that may not be the right question in the first place. Regardless of what Obama considers to be an exemplary man, the bigger question that I'm struggling with is this one: why does the President, and our country more generally, place such a high priority on "being a man" in the first place? And what effect does that have on the transgender and genderqueer community?

With his focus only on "gay and lesbian Americans," Obama neglected to mention the transgender community in his speech. But with his hyper-focus on masculinity, manhood, and "being a man," he ended up with a speech that might have been inadvertently transphobic. Whether you're transitioning from male to female, from female to male, or have permanently settled in between like I have, all transgender and genderqueer people have to live outside of gender norms at some point in our lives. Through his focus on "being a man," Obama reemphasized the gender binary, and through doing so, inadvertently helped perpetuate a world where gender non-conforming and transgender people are looked down upon, discriminated against, and made the targets of immense violence for not "being a man" or "acting like a lady."

The constant imperative to "be a man" is something that I deal with in my life as a genderqueer person on a daily basis. I see it in the eyes of people I pass by in the street, who stare at me for wearing lipstick. Or I hear it when someone drives by and yells "faggot" out of their window when I'm wearing a flowing shirt. I even feel it at home, as my father implores me not to wear my high heels to a meeting. But I don't expect to hear that from my president, the same President Obama who stands so staunchly for the rights of gay and lesbian Americans.

Now I'm not saying the president intentionally excluded the transgender community, but intentionally or not, I think we have to start asking ourselves some tough questions. How high of a priority does the Obama administration place on transgender rights? And given that most gay and lesbian news outlets celebrated this speech despite its disregard for the transgender community and reliance on gender normativity as its guiding premise, how high of a priority do members of the gay and lesbian community place on transgender rights?

In a country where three transgender people were murdered this past April for not being "man enough" and none of those murders received significant press coverage, we have to rethink the way that we talk about the gender binary. And in a country where those three murders still remain unsolved, I think it's time we start making the issues facing transgender and gender non-conforming people a national priority.