President Barack Obama's said he would be a "fierce advocate" for gay rights but his record up to date has been spotty at best so many of us in the gay community who were closely following the president's speech to see if it could give us any indication of what we can expect within the months ahead.
In some important respects the president new. The commitments he made tonight were made when he was stumping on the campaign trail. He renewed his commitment to sign into law the Matthew Shepard Act, which extends hate crime protections to gay, lesbian and transgendered people, and to "push for" the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would ban employers from considering one's sexual orientation when making personnel decisions. He made the case for lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military and said his administration is consequently "moving" to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And he called on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and spoke of a day "at some time" in the future, when gay families would be treated like any other family.
The gay Americans at the Human Rights Campaign dinner gave him a warm reception when he spoke to their issues. They applauded when he said that the Matthew Shepard Act would be signed into law shortly (as soon as the Senate passes it next week) and when he promised to "push for" ENDA. The cheers got louder when he said his administration was "moving" to repeal the ban on gays serving in the military and when he called on Congress to repeal the "so-called Defense of Marriage Act."
(Referring to the "Defense of Marriage Act" as the "so-called Defense of Marriage Act" is also appreciated, for the act does not protect or buffer straight marriages one iota).
But the crowd was noticeably silent when the president attempted to suggest that we all had a stake in some of the priorities which the president is focusing on - job expansion and health care. Job expansion, the president asserted, affects us all. We all need to make a living in order to pay for the cars we financed, the mortgages on our homes, and the food on the kitchen table. In some respects this is true. ENDA would provide us no relief if there are no jobs to be fired from but the reverse is also true. A job-saturated environment would not serve us well if our application for a job or a promotion can be turned down merely because it is known we are gay.
The president also rightly asserts that we have an interest in meaningful health care reform but we live in a country where one's access to health insurance depends upon one's ability to hold onto a job. Health insurance reform will not help the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered person who is fired because his or her employer does not want him or her in the workplace. The inclusion of the public option could mitigate this problem as would restrictions that forbid insurance companies from discriminating on account of one's sexual orientation or HIV status (this would I gather be treated as a precondition) but again affordability will always be an obstacle when the gay worker is at his or her employer's mercy.
In this respect the push for ENDA isn't a diversion from but an important aspect of the president's commitment to put Americans back to work and his commitment and to help them make health insurance more affordable. It isn't merely a "social issue" that could be pushed to the side when other, supposedly more "important" issues come up but a prerequisite for demonstrating the president's commitment to help ALL Americans make a living.
Ending the ban on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," likewise, furthers this nation's goals. Currently we are fighting two wars with an overstretched military. As it is, the military is recruiting people who have criminal records because it is desperate for troops. Discharging American soldiers from the military because they happen to be gay isn't just wrong from a civil rights perspective; it is counterproductive.
The president understandably has to pick his battles since this country faces many problems, most of them not of his own making. Some issues can be pushed to the side and revisited during a period of economic expansion and I believe many within the gay community would have given him more deference if they didn't feel he was abandoning everything that he said on the campaign trail. Had the president expended some of his political capital on two of the issues facing the gay community, they might have forgiven him for pushing the rest to the side until we were facing better times. The Political Heretic would have advised the president to move on the Matthew Shepard's Act and the Employment Nondiscrimination Act within the first three months of his term.
Insult, however, was added to injury.
Gay Americans were insulted when Reverend Rick Warren, the popular but anti-gay author of "The Purpose Driven Life," deliver the invocation, and the fiasco surrounding the intentional/unintentional communication surrounding the hastily-arranged decision to invite Bishop Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, deliver the Benediction, didn't help either. HBO would point the finger at the Obama transition team while the Obama administration blamed HBO for the failure to air Reverend Robinson's Benediction live. We were insulted when the president failed to acknowledge the losses we felt in Arkansas, California, and Florida. Soothing, comforting words were not offered by our president-elect during our moment in need.
Prominent gay bloggers raised the alarm when commitments which the Obama administration made to gay people were being removed or otherwise revised on the White House's own web site. Then of course, there was the gratuitously insulting DOMA brief that one would expect from a theo-conservative apparatchik within a Republican administration.
One must note the language Obama used when addressing these issues tonight. The president said he will sign the hate crimes bill into law and he said he is "pushing hard" for the job discrimination bill. "We will put a stop for it," the president said. His language on both of these matters was strong, and as such we can expect his commitment to these two matters to be strong.
He said he "will end 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'" but he described it in words that suggest it will be a work in progress. The president would not commit to a self-imposed deadline.
The president spoke approvingly of gay families. He referred to "a time" (whether it is in the distant or not-so-distant future is anybody's guess) when the relationships between two men or two women would be valued and treated as the equal to the relationship established between one man and one woman. Implicitly the president was making the case for the gay marriages he does not approve of (he supports civil unions) and implicitly (perhaps even cryptically and tepidly) stated his opposition to the campaigns that seek to devalue the relationships made by gay, bisexual, lesbian and transsexual Americans (by "writing discrimination" in their constitutions )now underway in Washington and Maine. I In Washington, our opponents successfully petitioned to get Referendum 71 on the Movember ballot before same-sex families could sign up and make use of the various domestic partnership benefits that were signed into law. And in Maine our opponents successfully submitted enough petitions to let Maine's voters overturn Maine's new, fully-inclusive marital law.
In both cases the opposition has a a significant advantage over those who are fighting for equality. These questions will be appearing on the ballot of an off-year election when their base will turn out to work. Our base, generally does not turn out as well during off-year elections. They also have the institutional support of their respective churches. The Catholic Diocese of Portland, in fact, has taken up a second round of collections to raise money for the campaign to repeal their state's marriage law.
Whether it was intentional or not, President Obama's failure to specifically mention the opponents divisive campaigns to repeal the domestic partnership and gay marriage laws provides them with the green light to continue their dirty practices, to, in both cases, "bear false witness against their neighbors" by suggesting that the marriage and domestic partnership laws have anything to do with the "promotion of homosexuality" in our schools.
Gay-straight alliances are formed in states with and without fully-inclusive marital laws and they are formed in states. They are formed in states where the social climate is friendly towards gays and in states where the climate is particularly and overtly hostile towards gays. They are formed in school districts that promote them and in school districts that would try to stifle them if the ACLU did not intervene on their behalf. We don't have much leeway if these polls are to be believed. We are edging our way to victory by one percentage point which means we could very well lose, particularly if some of those who said they would support us change their minds when they step into the polling booth.
Mr. Obama's refusal to forcefully speak out against these campaigns was disheartening and sobering - disheartening because we need every vote we can get so his words could have made the difference for those who might have given our argument a second shot if it was made by him, and sobering because it suggests he will not go to bat for us. A president who isn't willing to put his prestige on the line for a campaign we can lose is a president who is at best a fair weather friend.
In the months that follow we will see if the president will live up to his commitment to be a "fierce advocate" for gay rights. We will see if he will, "push hard" for the Employment Nondiscrimiantion Act and if his administration really is "moving" to eliminate Don't Ask, Don't Tell. If, by the time he is running for re-election, there has been no movement on these issues (or on the safe schools act which I wrote of last night) he should not and we should not allow him to expect our donations to his re-election campaign.
This is our moment to stand tall and fight for our right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." If, in fact "all men [and women] are created equal," then we must be treated as if we are equal and we have a right to insist that we be treated like straight America's equal. The Democrats say they support our rights. They now control the House, Senate and the White House. There are no excuses for a delay and we must insist that they act now.