Video of the Day: President Obama confronted by a non-binary student

In a visit to London, President Obama spoke out against North Carolina’s HB2, addressed an audience member who came out to him as non-binary and expressed concern over the climate for trans and non-binary people in the United States and the UK. In doing so, the president demonstrated how far he has come discussing LGBT issues as well as how far he has to go.

Check out the video and partial transcript below.

Student: You’ve been speaking a lot about becoming the change we want to see. You’ve spoken about progress, about human rights, and about how we, in the U.S. and U.K. need to lead in terms of civil rights movements and LGBTQ issues. Now, I’m about to do something terrifying which is I am coming out to you as a non-binary person, which means that I don’t fit within – I’m getting emotional, I’m sorry.

Obama: It’s ok.


Student: I’m from a Pakistani muslim background, which typically has cultural implications and I know that in North Carolina recently with the bathroom bill people are being forced to obviously produce birth certificates to prove their gender in order to go to the toilet. In the UK we don’t recognize non-binary people under the equality act, so we literally have no rights, so if there was any discrimination, there’s nothing we can do. I’ve been working for the last nine months for the UK’s civil service, Fast Stream, to do what I can even though I’m still at University, and running for local election at the same time. I’ve managed to get them to respect pronouns; I’ve managed to get them to commit to gender neutral toilets; and these are things I’ve done as a student. I really wish that yourself and [British Prime Minister] David Cameron would take us seriously as transgender people. Perhaps you could elucidate as to what you can do to go beyond what has been accepted as the LGBTQ rights movement, including people who fit outside the social norms.

Obama: I’m incredibly proud of the steps it sounds like you’ve already taken to speak out about your own experience and to try to create a social movement and to change laws. It sounds to me like you’re on the right track. I can’t speak for David Cameron, although I will say that on LGBT issues, I think David has been ahead of the curve relative to a lot of other leaders around the world and even here in the UK.

I can say from my perspective that we’re taking a lot of serious steps to address these issues within the federal government. The challenge we’ve had is that North Carolina is the law that comes up, for example…that’s a state law, and because of our system of government, I can’t overturn on my own state laws unless a federal law is passed that prohibits states from doing these kinds of things. With the Congress that I currently have, that’s not likely to happen. But we’re doing a lot of work administratively. Like I said, you should feel encouraged just by virtue that social attitudes on this issue have changed faster than I’ve seen on any other issue. It doesn’t feel fast enough for you or for those who are impacted and that’s good. You shouldn’t feel satisfied. You should keep pushing. But I think the trend lines are good on this; we’re moving in the right direction, in part because of courageous and active young people like yourself.

Obama has been the most progressive president on LGBT right. He expanded LGBT rights for federal workers through executive order, appointed the first trans woman to the White House, and became the first sitting president to endorse marriage equality (after notoriously “evolving” on the issue for a couple of years).

His response to this student demonstrates his growth and continued weaknesses on LGBT issues. He came out against the recent laws targeting LGBTQ people, but stumbled through the rest of his answer. The trend lines are good on this? We’re moving in the right direction? I understand what the president is saying, but his attitude makes me wonder what trends he’s looking at. That anti-LGBTQ backlash is real, and it seems that our president may have been caught sleeping.

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Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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