Remarks of Secretary Shaun Donovan
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Creating Change Conference
Saturday, January 28, 2012
Thank you, Rea, for that very kind introduction.
You remind each of us here today what a privilege it is to be partners in the fight for equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
And it’s an honor to be here – as the first sitting Cabinet Secretary in history to address the Task Force – and to speak at Creating Change.
Let me also thank the Board and Staff of the Task Force for inviting me and many of my colleagues from across the Obama Administration to participate in this conference.
Thanks to your leadership in convening the New Beginning Initiative, together we have made extraordinary progress, creating changes throughout the Administration that have improved the day to day lives of LGBT people across the country.
A Seat at the Table
The progress we have made together reminds me that President Obama views the fight for LGBT equality not as an issue – but as a priority.
You can see this commitment in the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
In his first State of the Union, the President called for its repeal. And earlier this week, at the President’s third, an active duty Air Force colonel who is openly lesbian sat as a guest in the First Lady’s box without fear of being discharged for who she is or who she loves.
You can also see that commitment in a record number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender appointments to positions throughout the Administration.
You can see it in a Presidential Memorandum on Hospital Visitation, which addressed the rights of patients in hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds—just about every hospital—to designate visitors regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and directed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to take the necessary steps to improve the health and well-being of LGBT people and their families.
You can see it in the efforts we’ve undertaken on behalf of the transgender community, from the State Department’s efforts to ensure greater dignity and privacy for transgender passport applicants to the Office of Personnel Management’s announcement that gender identity is a prohibited basis of discrimination in federal employment to the VA’s directive to ensure respectful and non-discriminatory care for transgender veterans – who deserve our deepest gratitude and our commitment to their wellbeing.
And that commitment to the LGBT community doesn’t stop at our borders. You can also see it in a Presidential Memorandum promoting the protection of the human rights of LGBT individuals abroad – and in Secretary of State Clinton’s bold and forceful declaration that gay rights are human rights, and that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Perhaps clearest of all, you can see the President’s commitment in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention law.
I’m proud to work for the President who signed the first federal civil rights legislation that includes the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” into law.
A Place to Call Home – HUD Accomplishments
I’m here this afternoon, because our President and his Administration believe the LGBT community deserves a place at the table – and also a place to call home.
Each of us here knows that rights most folks take for granted are routinely violated against LGBT people.
That’s why I’m proud to stand before you this afternoon and say HUD has been a leader in the fight—your fight and my fight—for equality.
Over the last three years, we have worked to ensure that our housing programs are open.
Not to some.
Not to most.
But open to all.
Now, some outside this room might ask: why is that even necessary?
Well, let me tell you about Mitch and Michelle DeShane.
Two years ago Michelle wanted to add her partner Mitch, a transgender man, to the housing voucher she receives to find affordable housing.
The local housing authority denied her request. They told her that the couple did not meet its definition of “family.”
Then, the DeShanes were referred to a neighboring housing authority – because, as they were apparently told, and I quote, that housing authority, “accepts everyone – even Martians.”
That’s just wrong. No one should be subject to that kind of treatment or denied access to housing assistance because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And as the Injustice at Every Turn report you put out last year with the National Center for Transgender Equality, these challenges are all too common.
That report found not only that a staggering 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT – but that half of them report experiencing homelessness as a result of their gender identity or expression. Even more troubling, the majority report harassment, difficulty, or even sexual assault when trying to access homeless shelters.
Allowing this mistreatment to happen is not only wrong – it’s also not who we are as Americans.
That’s why, for the first time at our annual National Fair Housing Policy Conference, HUD hosted a session on housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
It’s why, in December, HUD and HHS held the first-ever LGBT elder housing summit, bringing together advocates and practitioners from across the country to highlight existing barriers and explore future opportunities to support housing and long-term care designed for seniors in the LGBT community.
Perhaps most important of all, it’s why we are conducting the first-ever national study of LGBT housing discrimination – a historic and important study we designed based on feedback from town halls conducted in communities across the country.
Led by HUD Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic, this study is partly about getting a clearer picture of the problem.
But it’s also about making the case – the case that LGBT discrimination is real and that we need to do something about it.
That’s why we’ve been reviewing our existing authority to address housing discrimination related to the LGBT community.
For instance, under the Fair Housing Act prohibition of sex discrimination, we have authority to pursue cases alleging housing discrimination because a person’s identity or expression didn’t conform with gender stereotypes.
And we’ve also provided HUD staff with guidance instructing them to carefully assess whether any LGBT-based housing discrimination complaints could be pursued through the Fair Housing Act or state or local discrimination laws – and launched a webpage on LGBT housing discrimination.
We know that these efforts are already having an impact.
With these resources we are helping uncover discrimination that had gone unreported for far too long and raising awareness that reporting such discrimination can make a difference. As a result, not only have reports of LGBT housing discrimination increased – so have the number of complaints we’ve been able to move forward on.
We’ve also required grant applicants to comply with state and local anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation or gender discrimination – covering 20 states that more than four-in-ten Americans call home.
Over $3 billion in federal funding is available in these grants – and we want to make sure as many dollars as possible are protecting the rights of every American.
Lastly, just as we’re making sure we understand the needs of LGBT Americans, we’re also making sure that LGBT Americans understand their rights as well.
With HUD’s Live Free fair housing education and outreach campaign, we’ve been targeting print and social media like Facebook, with videos, podcasts, and ads that address discrimination and let people know how to report it.
These are the first steps we’ve taken to ensure that all Americans—regardless of age, income, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity—have access to choice and opportunity.
And I tell you today:
They aren’t the last.
Today, I am proud to announce a new Equal Access to Housing Rule that says clearly and unequivocally that LGBT individuals and couples have the right to live where they choose.
This is an idea whose time has come.
And before I go into the rule itself, I want to acknowledge Assistant Secretary John Trasvina and the rest of the HUD team for their extraordinary work to get it across the finish line, as well as the Task Force and other LGBT organizations for the feedback you provided when we solicited comment on the proposed rule.
When we first proposed this rule, we included a provision that prohibited owners and operators of HUD housing from inquiring whether someone is LGBT.
But as you made very clear, people don’t have to inquire to discriminate against them – that often, people face discrimination based on their appearance or mannerisms.
And so, first and foremost, this rule includes a new equal access provision that prohibits owners and operators of HUD-funded housing, or housing whose financing we insure, from inquiring about an applicant’s sexual orientation or gender identity or denying housing on that basis.
If you are denying HUD housing to people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity—actual or perceived—you’re discriminating, you’re breaking the law – and you will be held accountable.
That’s what equal access means – and that’s what this rule is going to do.
Secondly, this rule makes clear that LGBT families, like the DeShanes, are eligible for HUD’s public housing and Housing Choice Voucher programs that collectively serve 5.5 million people.
Third, the rule also makes clear that sexual orientation and gender identity should not and cannot be part of any lending decision when it comes to getting a mortgage insured by the FHA – part of HUD.
I’m proud to announce that this rule will be published as final in the Federal Register next week and go into effect 30 days later.
Now, I’m as excited about this rule as everyone here. But let’s be clear:
Publishing this rule next week won’t be the end of the process – but in many ways, just the beginning.
Enacting a rule is not enough. Training and education are essential to ensuring rules are followed in communities across the country.
And so, HUD and its fair housing partners will work to provide guidance and training on the substance of this rule – and the impact it will have for both how we administer HUD programs and also how we enforce our nation’s fair housing laws more broadly.
And we look forward to working with you on that education effort.
Reclaiming Our Values
For me, for my colleagues here today, and for President Obama, everything I have described is fundamentally about one goal which I’m sure will be familiar to all of you:
Change like the President acknowledging young black gay men’s struggles, and telling these men that their lives matter.
Change like a commitment to double down on our efforts to ensure the promise that we can live in an AIDS free generation.
Or when the President acts to protect the visitation rights of gay and lesbian patients.
Because no one should be separated from the person they love – not in sickness and not in health.
Change is a returning sailor sharing a traditional first kiss with her girlfriend.
An Air Force officer having her partner at her side when she gets promoted.
And a Marine introducing his boyfriend to his battle buddies at the Marine Corps Ball.
Change is the President and the First Lady and members of the Administration telling young people across the country that bullying is wrong, their lives matter, and it does get better.
Change is a world in which a young man like Matthew Shepard can grow up, fall in love, and live happily ever after, because the President signed into law the first piece of federal legislation in history containing the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”– and because his government has acted to bring us closer to a day when hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are history.
And change is President Obama and his Administration standing for equal rights under the law for committed gay and lesbian couples by informing courts that Section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
Now, I can be as frustrated as anyone by the pace of change. Change is slow. Change is hard.
But the change I’ve been talking about?
This change is real.
It didn’t just “happen.”
It took vigilance and commitment – from you and from the President and his Administration.
As many of you may know, President Obama had inscribed on the carpet in the Oval Office a quote of Martin Luther King’s – which reads “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
At moments when change is hard and his head is bowed, I often imagine President Obama, looking down and seeing these words – and remembering to keep his eyes on the prize.
I mention that quote not just because I believe that progress I’ve described over these last three years proves its truth.
But also because we didn’t come this far because we hoped that arc would bend.
We got this far because of people throughout our proud history—people like Val Burke, Mitch and Michelle DeShane and the countless others whose names we’ll never know—had the strength and the courage to lean on that arc – and inspire others to as well.
Because the kind of change we need can’t be led by Washington. It never is.
It’s got to be led by people – as President Obama has said, by “ordinary citizens...propelled not just by politics but by love and friendship and a sense of mutual regard.”
It’s got to be led by you.
By all of us. There are no sidelines in these fights.
Like our President, I believe America succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.
Those are our values as Americans.
They represent who we are – and who we aspire to be.
So, let’s make it happen. Let’s keep creating change – this year, next and every year going forward.
Thank you for this opportunity – for all you do and all I know you’ll continue to do in the weeks and months to come.