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Obama's 'Town Hall' Meeting with British Youth Covered Gender Rights, Islamophobia, and Leadership

US President Barack Obama took questions from 500 young people who asked about everything from trade agreements to LGBT rights.

by Sally Hayden
Apr 23 2016, 5:50pm

Photo by Will Oliver/EPA

US President Barack Obama's attempt to take questions from British young people in a "boy, girl, boy, girl" order slightly backfired in London Saturday after a young student came out as non-binary to him.

"I'm about to do something terrifying, which is I'm coming out to you as a non-binary person, which means that I don't fit because I'm from a Pakistani-Muslim background, which inevitably has complications," 20-year-old Maria Munir said to the US president.

"I know that in North Carolina with the bathroom bill people are being forced to produce birth certificates in order to go the toilet," Munir continued. "In the UK we don't recognise non-binary people under the Equality Act, so we literally have no rights."

Munir finished by asking: "What could you do to go beyond what is accepted as the LBGTQ rights movement including people who are outside the social norms?"

In response, the US president said he didn't think that was "crazy" at all and called them "brave," while urging the student to continue to push for change.

Obama is in the UK on a three-day visit, which has already seen him hold a joint press conference with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, where he called for Britain to stay in the EU — a topic which remained notably unmentioned the next day.

Saturday's "town-hall" style meeting saw 500 young people invited to Lindley Hall, at the Royal Horticultural Society in central London.

The president opened with some crowd pleasers, calling Prince George — whom he had met the night before — "adorable," and quoting William Shakespeare to say "brevity is the soul of wit." Earlier that morning, Obama had visited the Globe Theater, to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death.

Obama, who received a standing ovation upon arrival, said the main message he intended to deliver at the meeting was that young people should "reject pessimism and cynicism, know that progress is possible and our problems can be solved."

He said with the steady stream of bad news given by outlets like Twitter, it can seem like the world order is crumbling, but young people should reject "the notion that we're gripped by forces we can't control" and instead take "a longer view of history."

"You are standing in a moment where your capacity to shape this world is unmatched," he told the visibly impressed crowd. "You've never had better tools to make a difference."

Obama was asked questions about Northern Ireland, Islamophobia, Somalia, the TTIP, and his views on leadership. More than half of the audience put their hands up at one stage or another in an attempt to speak with him.

Related: Obama Warns the UK That There Will Be Consequences if It Leaves the EU

In response to a Sikh man who asked him about racial profiling in airports, Obama said that while he recognizes it is happening, it's not his administration's policy. "I have taken an adamant stand to make sure that we're not racially profiling in airports," he said, while calling Islamophobia "self-defeating behavior," because "our greatest allies are the Muslim Americans who are fully integrated into our societies."

The president, who has eight months left in power, was also asked about his legacy.

"When you're in the job you're not thinking on a day-to-day basis about your legacy," he said. "I don't think I'll have a good sense of my legacy until 10 years from now when I can look back with some perspective." The British audience applauded again when Obama said he was proud of his work on healthcare, and that everyone should have access to good quality healthcare that they can afford.

Again he emphasized: "Change takes time and oftentimes what you start has to then be picked up by your successors or the next generation."

Obama also had advice for young campaigners. When asked what activism had impacted on him during his eight years in office, he pointed to the remarkable "rapidity" of the change in attitudes towards same-sex marriage.

Obama then highlighted the Black Lives Matter campaign, which is bringing attention to the problems of a criminal justice system "that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race."

However, he also offered a word of caution, saying it's a common mistake for campaigners to keep "yelling" once politicians are willing to sit down with them "and refusing to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position. The value of social activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room... you then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable" to implement the changes you want to see. "Often what I see is wonderful activism that highlights a problem but then people feel so passionately... they never take that next step and say now I've got to sit down and get something done," he said.

As Obama finished, The Clash's London Calling played him off the stage and into the crowds of young people.

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Speaking to VICE News after the event, Maria Munir expressed pride at having the opportunity to stand up in front of Obama and "tell him who I am."

"To think that it was complete chance that Obama picked me makes me feel dizzy with euphoria," Munir said. "I told Obama before I told my parents because I was concerned that they may feel burdened by the huge wave of negative comments denying the existence of non-binary people, but they have been nothing but welcoming and proud. Maybe it's the Obama effect."

Munir also said this would cast the light on a "vital issue" which includes being conscious about pronoun usage, as well as introducing gender neutral toilets. "I hope to use this opportunity to put non-binary issues at the forefront of social movements. I did it because if anyone can help us, it's POTUS."

A large group of young people stood outside after Obama exited. Several squealed when they spotted actor Benedict Cumberbatch emerging from the hall, and while all those VICE News spoke to said they were impressed by Obama. Madeleine Crouchman, 17, from Cambridge, said the whole event had been "amazing. He's a great speaker."

Danielle Ilori, 18, praised Obama for tackling the questions head on: "I found the whole experience really inspiring. I liked the way he had a very clear answer to every question that was asked, he wasn't vague."

"You could see he knew what he was talking about," Nassim Rezgul said, while admitting that he has never been as interested in UK politicians. "[Obama's] got a good eight months left and he can still elicit a lot of social change both in the US and UK... Most politicians wouldn't form a bridge between the youth and policies."

Obama went on to meet UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said they had an "excellent" 90-minute discussion. He was then scheduled to play golf with Cameron, before attending a dinner in the US ambassador's residence.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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