A quick post on Obama and gay rights

At the risk of ruffling the feathers of a few of my blogging comrades, I think that Kevin Drum is basically correct when he asks LGBT activists to chill out a little:

Still, even putting that aside, there’s a big segment of the gay community that’s pretty pissed off at Obama right now.  In one sense, I understand: they supported him, his record on gay issues is pretty modest so far, and the only way they’re going to get what they want is by keeping the pressure on him.

At the same time, some of the criticism is way over the top.  Obama doesn’t suddenly become a different person whenever he’s dealing with whatever your particular hot button issue is.  He’s the same guy all the time: cautious, tactical, organized, and prone to prioritizing things pretty carefully.  For better or worse, he’s also sensitive about learning lessons from the Clinton administration, and Clinton obviously failed miserably when he tried to force the Pentagon to accept gays early in his administration.

The gay community has every right to be a little miffed with Obama, and it’s good that they are channeling that frustration into activism.  Even if it takes a little while, sustained pressure will encourage the administration to pick up the pace, and direct more time and energy towards changing the status quo.

That said, I think it’s also important for activists to understand that Obama is on their side, even if he is slow-walking reform.  Jeremy Levine (who blogs at the outstanding Social Science Lite) criticized President Obama’s Friday address as “an empty speech, void of action, conviction, or credibility.”  I’ll agree that Obama’s speech was “void of action,” but to say that it lacked conviction or credibility is more than a little unfair.  In fact, I think it betrays a lack of perspective.  Say what you will about Obama’s speech, the fact that the President of the United States declared his unconditional support for gay rights is kind of a big deal.  In fact, it’s a huge deal, especially when you consider that we aren’t even a year removed from an administration that refined anti-gay hostility and elevated it to a national pastime.

President Bush, if you remember, supported a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, and was generally supportive of state-based efforts to strip gay Americans of their rights.  Indeed, stoking fear and hostility towards gay Americans was part of the Bush administration’s reelection effort.  I mean, to just sort of underscore the degree to which it was open season on gay Americans, the White House consistently opposed the extension of hate crimes legislation to gays, even as the country saw a sharp rise in the number of hate crimes targeted at gays.  Activists are well within their rights to criticize Obama’s speech as “just words,” but in doing so, they miss an important fact about presidential rhetoric: it makes a difference.  It further brings gay concerns into the mainstream and gives them a sense of urgency.

This is certainly not to say that the gay community should ignore the fact that Obama has yet to really move on gay rights, but on the whole, I that it’s far more productive to at least acknowledge that Barack Obama is an ally, and – slow-walking notwithstanding – is openly supportive of gay rights.  Tearing him down politically – as opposed to lobbying and pressuring – only makes his job that much harder.

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33 thoughts on “A quick post on Obama and gay rights

    • Not at all.

      The important question for me, though, is this:

      What is Obama really trying to accomplish?

      Is he, as has been suggested by many in the gay community, really indifferent to gay rights, and views the LGBT community as little more than another Democratic constituency to be milked for votes and money (as the Dems are better than the openly-hostile GOP), but which aren’t worthy of expending any political capital on? (The Democrats have long treated African-Americans in the same manner, which is why King’s letter is kinda relevant; even though African-Americans were not a major Democratic constituency in the 1960s)?

      Or is he an ally, but one who is quietly marshalling forces for a more thorough victory than he would be able to obtain by simply charging forth?

      I’m kinda reminded of the scene in Shrek wherein the ogre rescues Fiona from the dragon’s keep–and she is mad as hell to find that he hasn’t yet slain the dragon.

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      • And we’re back to Schroedinger’s President.

        If Obama is *REALLY* setting up for a lightning punch that would end DADT, recognize life partnerships for federal tax purposes, and use his executive powers to provide law enforcement that would give, finally!, equality under the law to homosexuals, then hurray!

        The problem is that Goku charging up for his lightning punch looks almost exactly like Goku not doing a damn thing in preparation for further not doing a damn thing followed by more of not a damn thing.

        And we won’t know which is going on until it’s done.

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        • I suspect that would be several smaller punches. Given how Washington works, it is unlikely that legislation to get rid of DADT would be in the same bill as legislation to get rid of DOMA.

          But you’re right–when all that happens is behind the scenes, we don’t know what’s going on. Of course, Obama giving speeches on the subject isn’t enough either, apparently–with many, there will be no praise for Obama until the deed is done.

          And in many respects, that’s how it should be–if Obama leaves office without making good on these promises, it will be a failure on his part.

          But given that both things require a legislative act (Obama could strike at DADT with an executive order, but doing so now would probably poison the well, and invite charges of “abuse of power” from the right, as he would be directing the DOD to ignore the law–something that liberals frequently objected to when Bush did it), and would likely be a temporary fix given that the next president could simply reverse it.

          Here’s a question for you, though, and one that I think neatly cleaves activists (on all sides) from insiders:
          If your party gets elected, which is better: 1) To stay elected, and accomplish little of substance? or 2) To enact a broad and sweeping agenda–that further polarizes the electorate and pisses off and energizes the other side, with the result of your stay in power being a short one?

          For most insiders, staying in power matters most. For most activists, getting what they want is important. And given the nature of US politics, where the inertia built into the system makes it hard to get anything done, it could be argued that the more rational move is to do as much as you can while your in power, even if you get unelected the next time around, and then play defense as hard as you can.

          It’s not working too badly for the GOP, after all.

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          • I seem to have muffed up a paragraph in the above…

            But given that both things (DOMA repeal and DADT repeal) require a legislative act, Obama first has to convince the LEGISLATURE to act. And as much as folks are accusing Obama of being spineless on the issue, both houses of Congress are being led by a pack of amoebas, who I certainly DO think are unwilling to jeopardize their majorities for a captive constituency, at least not without a lot of prodding from the White House. And he’s busy prodding ’em on other issues at the moment.

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            • By “working out for the GOP”, I mean they do seem to be somewhat achieving their goal of frustrating the Democratic agenda somewhat. The healthcare reform Congress is close to delivering is NOT what most Democratic voters wanted. (It may still be useful, but I have my doubts).

              The GOP might even gain some seats in the midterms as well. I doubt their prospects for 2012 and beyond without some major reforms, but there may well be enough pissed-off seniors in purple states to narrow the Democratic majority. (Or not–sooner or later, Republican candidates for office will have to express an opinion on the loony-bin that is the national party and the tea party right–and if current trends stretch into next year’s primary cycle, the Rush and Beck faction will pillory any candidate who doesn’t pledge fealty, and independent voters will pillory any remaining candidates who do).

              But my point was–it’s not hard in DC to play defense. (And it’s a shame the Democrats never figured this out during the Bush years).

              I just miss the days when Rush and Beck referred to damn fine musical acts…

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    • Probably more appropriate than people are willing to admit…seeing as how anemic Jack Kennedy’s movements towards a Civil Rights Act were during his presidency. It was only his death and LBJ’s particular “moment” that led to the CRA’s passage…And somehow I don’t see Republicans crossing over in large numbers to pass a modern version of that for LGBT folk.

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  1. I’m not sure that criticism on this issue necessarily counts as tearing him down politically. “You must force me to do it” and all that noise. It would be another thing if gay rights groups were out recruiting a primary challenger or donating money to the GOP (not sure why they’d do that, but whatever); but a protest? That’s not tearing down, that’s just applying pressure.

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  2. I wish Obama had given a word of support for domestic partnerships in Washington state (I would add Maine too, but won’t, since Obama opposes gay marriage). There is a very real chance that voters will revoke domestic partnerships after a particularly nasty anti-gay campaign in that state. A word of support from Obama could have made a real difference and would have cost him next to nothing. Instead, we may just see a repeat of Prop 8, where anti-gay activist’s use Obama’s position on marriage to campaign against gay rights.

    I believe Obama supports gay rights, but he just doesn’t care enough to use any of his political capital to advance the cause.

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  3. Overall, I think this is a fair analysis. Yet I will say that his support, at a gay rights event, does come off a lot like appeasement. Like he’s saying all the right things, just to say them. It’s not like he stopped to hold a press conference today, the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death ( I know, I know…major vote on healthcare today, so I’m not suggesting he stop all of that for a press conference), on a national stage, means more than promises to an all-gay audience. I see how this is a tremendous advance from past presidencies, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still a bit on the safe side, which I think us proponents of social equality (rightfully) get a little peeved at. I think, ultimately, we should judge him on whether or not he does anything beyond speeches to all-gay/all-ally crowds. Thus far, he hasn’t given us much to judge.

    From an on-the-ground level, I think it’s imperative people, gay or otherwise, continue to push him on this. If there isn’t rumblings from the electorate, particularly those in the districts with close races coming up in 2010 or 2012, then this will never be a priority. The “stop and wait” arguments are tired, and I think a fair amount of anger is warranted. Look, he’s better than Bush, and symbolic gestures matter, but if we get too happy about that, that’s where it’ll end. I, for one, am not satisfied yet.

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  4. Rather than debate where obama stands and blah, blah, blah….i think it’s a little more interesting to look at how impatient the gay rights lobby is. They have made tremendous progress in the last couple of years. The momentum in state legislatures isn’t slowing down. But they still aren’t happy because they can’t get married TODAY and y’know get Uncle Sam to say he’s down with the same-sex love. And let’s be honest, that’s mostly what repealing DADT is about.

    The Left turned on the gay folks after the 2004 election and the gay folks are kicking them in the nuts right now. It kind of highlights the fragility of interest group politics.

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    • DADT is about gays getting married?

      While one can certainly accuse gay rights groups of being impatient, for what interest group involving civil rights issues is that not true? And the left abandoned “gay folks” in 2004? For some reason, I didn’t get the memo. Certainly, few prominent national politicians were prepared to openly endorse gay marriage in 2004, but that wasn’t a retrograde action–it’s been only in more recent years that the issue has stopped being a political third rail.

      In my opinion, whether Uncle Sam, or your local state legislature, is “down” with lovin’ of any sort, is irrelevant. Why should the government exercise a preference for one sort of love (involving consenting adults, please!) over the other?

      (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way; an answer is not required–I’m well aware of the talking points for the anti-SSM side, and consider each and every one of them to be specious in the extreme, and most of them to be bigoted horseshit to boot).

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      • DADT effects an extraordinarily small amount of a pretty small subculture. But if the government repeals it, it’s the first step towards federal recognition/endorsement of gay relationships which is, of course, the ultimate goal of the gay rights movement.

        As for 2004, the Left blamed much of their defeat on gay marriage proponents who made a push just before the election which mobilized socially conservative voters. There was plenty of press about it then and I’m sure it’s still floating around out there on the internet.

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        • “Pretty small subculture”? Are you referring to gays who happen to be in the military, or to gays in general? I wouldn’t describe the LGBT population in general to be “pretty small”–several percentage points overall, encompassing several million individuals.

          But why shouldn’t gay relationships receive Federal recognition, especially if such recognition is understood to not convey any moral approval, but merely tangible benefits such as joint tax returns, survivorship of Social Security benefits, or immigration benefits? At minimum–why should the Feds disregard a marriage that a given state chooses to recognize? Why should the widower of former congressman Gerry Studds be unable to collect on his pension, while the widow of Teddy Kennedy is able to collect on his?

          Regarding 2004–I think you’re confusing Democrats in general, with the left. Many have written that focusing on gay marriage was a good political strategy of the right, and much agitation on the issue was raised by conservatives (and elevated in stature by a few timely court decisions). Certainly some centrist Democrats griped about losing, as did a few factions within the Democratic party that are less friendly with the LGBT community–but the mainstream left, not so much.

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          • The point I am making is that while the gay lobby has recently chosen to take the President to the woodshed on DADT, it actually only affects a small number of gays directly. And yes, there are a lot of gays compared to the atendance at a high school football game but they remain a small % of the US population. I think the more important point is that the President is on record as not being in favor of gay marriage. Why isn’t he being attacked for that?

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        • DADT affects a much wider swath of the military than I think you give it credit for. There’s evidence that it’s used to cover up sexual assaults, led to an increase in illegal fraternization which undermine the integrity of the armed forces more broadly than a handful of individuals. Not to mention the sizeable issue of dismissing translators in vital intelligence roles which, not to be dramatic, directly affects the safety and lives of troops in combat zones.

          DADT is poorly reasoned and mounting evidence demonstrates that it causes real harm not just to gays in the military but also to heterosexual women and troops on the ground.

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          • Perhaps 4% of the male population is given to homosexuality to any degree; it is doubtful that a disproportionate share of this 4% are inclined toward military service. The share of these who insist on making a public point of their sexual perversions is likely smaller still. It is not terribly credible that there is a significant cost to the military in refusing to tolerate the disciplinary problems these nuisances generate.

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            • “It is not terribly credible that there is a significant cost to the military”

              That’s not funny because
              a.) the national clandestine services scrapped their rules because it was costly for them and good policy to be more inclusive…only DoD has DADT.
              b.) increasingly, the military itself is inclined to disagree
              c.) you have a very narrow conception of what defines this problem and ignore all of the unexpected and undesirable effects of DADT that have an effect on heterosexual soldiers.

              also, sexual perversions? what is this the 1880’s?

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  5. Look, for almost nine months we’ve had a Democratic President and overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Not a single piece of gay rights legislation has been passed. Not even a measly little hate crimes bill.

    I understand why the Democrats don’t want to spend political capital on something controversial like DOMA repeal, but some pieces of gay rights legislation have the support of a large majority of voters. A majority of *Republicans* want gays to be allowed to serve openly in the military. There’s also widespread support for laws protecting gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination. What are the Democrats waiting for?

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  6. I couldn’ help but notice that not once in this articles did you use the phrase ‘Gay People. Why is this? Do you really want everyone to forget that you are actualy talking about the lives and basic rights of human beings of American Citizens?

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