Opinion: Another White House Meeting Shows There’s Now a Place at the Table for LGBT People

Rev. Rick Eisenlord of Pasadena's Good Shepherd Church
Rev. Rick Eisenlord of Pasadena’s Good Shepherd Church

It was one of those “pinch-me” moments. After a long history in the wilderness (or at least in the closet), the LGBT movement has finally achieved a place at the table.

To paraphrase the advertising slogan for Virginia Slims cigarettes when they were introduced in the late 1960s to cater to women, “We’ve come a long way, Baby.”

At the invitation of the White House, some 100 LGBT leaders from around the nation attended a summit in Washington, D.C., last week to discuss their concerns regarding Obamacare. They came from states large and small, from the liberal North and West, to the stolid and flinty Midwest, to the bedrock conservative South. I had the honor of being among those select leaders for the second consecutive year.

High on the list of concerns for me was ensuring that specialized treatment for HIV patients would be accessible under HMOs that provide care to many Medi-Cal patients. Of particular concern was the rise in HIV infections among young gay men and minority populations.

The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services were supportive. HHS and Administration officials noted that in 2013, one-third of all lower- and middle-income LGBT individuals had no health insurance. Forty-four percent of all LGBT people surveyed reported putting off medical care because they couldn’t afford it.

Other Affordable Care Act challenges noted at the White House briefing included coverage for same-sex couples. Because of a patchwork of laws across the nation, some legally married same-sex couples have faced barriers to enrolling for family coverage.

But the big news, really, wasn’t the content. It was the fact that the dialogue was even happening. It was a benchmark, and a remarkable one at that. It was stunning to see over 100 LGBT leaders invited and welcomed at the White House.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

In the past two years, Pew and Gallup both released major surveys of public perception and attitudes toward the LGBT community.

The surveys were compared with historical data, and Pew and Gallup found the same startling thing: During a relatively short period, public acceptance of same-sex marriage and relations between consenting LGBT adults increased far more quickly than it did for acceptance of blacks and females into the mainstream. Simultaneously, the disapproval rate plunged.

Not surprisingly, there are sharp differences by generation, politics and religion (the younger, more liberal and less religiously affiliated, the more accepting). Women are slightly more accepting than men.

The broad picture shows that since 2001, the percentage of those supporting LGBT issues has risen by approximately one-third to the 55 percent. At the same time, those opposed have dwindled by one-third to approximately 40 percent.

Going back only a few years further, the numbers are even more stark: Those who embrace the idea nearly doubled from the mid-1990s and today, while those opposed were reduced by half. On both sides of the equation, the change was a stunning 25 percentage points in less than 20 years.

The momentum seems irreversible.

Nonetheless, a major question remains unanswered: How large is the LGBT community? Figures most often bandied about range from two percent to 10 percent of the U.S. population. An article in the Smithsonian magazine last year estimated it may be as high as 20 percent. A recent survey conducted for the federal Centers for Disease Control reports 1.6 percent of American adults identify as gay or lesbian.

But is that really relevant? The better questions are, How are you accepted? How are you treated?

Look around you and see how many others share the same beliefs. In a community such as West Hollywood, the ratio is high and you will feel more accepted and safe.

Not so in communities where you are the outlier. You are treated differently, and that often translates into being treated less well, less fairly, more suspect. This is where the real battle must be fought.

The White House conference wasn’t the first step. Many preceded it. But it was a giant step. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum.

Rev. Eisenlord is the openly gay pastor of Good Shepherd Church Pasadena. He also is co-founder of the San Gabriel Valley Gay & Lesbian Center. Since being ordained in the mid-1970s, he has advocated on behalf of helping the neediest in the LGBT community.

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