The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Gay Rights & the Virtue of Low Expectations

In the previous post about Obama, I promised a post about what gays can reasonably expect from the incoming Democratic Congress. The subject has been in the back of my mind since an article entitled “What We Can Reasonably Expect” landed in my inbox just before Thanksgiving. The article does a pretty good job of spelling out the shift in Congress, and particularly what it means for gays & lesbians in terms of who’s leaving Congress, who’s entering Congress, and which Democrats will end up with leadership positions.

Then there’s the section that neatly reflects the results of the previously mentioned progressive penchant for supporting Democrats who’re not-so-progressive on gay issues, and almost draws a sliding scale from one of the more pro-equality Democrats (Sherrod Brown) to the not-so-pro-equality Democrats taking their places in the next Congress. And it’s that description that reminds me of something I said earlier, which I think bears repeating, since it seems to figure into the “gospel of low expectations” I’m hearing regarding gay issues in the next congress.

I’ve been watching this happen for about the past year or so. I’ve ranted on about it on various progressive blogs. I’ve whooped and hollered about it at the YearlyKos convention. The answer I got was always the same, even from gay people: this is what we have to do to win, and get back into power. At the time I said that shifting right or shutting up on certain issues in order to win over more conservative voters will mean having to do more of the same to keep those voters and thus hold on to power.

It’s no surprise what makes the list of expectations. It comes down to two issues: some kind of action on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and a hate crimes bill. Hopes for the former range from passage to at least a hearing, and on the former amending the Senate bill to match the House bill by making it transgender-inclusive. But Wayne Besen’s Smart Gay Agenda takes ENDA one step further, by expanding it to include credit, housing, and accommodations. That goes against the grain of low expectations (since you can almost certainly hear the wails of the rightwingers that such a bill would require Christians to rent to homosexual couples, etc., complete with images of the military forcing them to do so at gunpoint or something), but

But Wayne starts out suggesting a six month silence in the first six months of the new Congress. And he seems to take for granted that Bush would veto ENDA (and he’s probably right about that), so he goes on to suggest gays and lesbians go silent until 2008.

The gay leaders should offer to step back and make no demands for six months to let the Democrats establish a tangible record on bread and butter economic issues. The party must establish itself as one that represents all people and cares most about the concerns of average families.Once party leaders have built a reserve of political capital and are able to boast of bipartisan accomplishments they will have earned credentials with suburban families and can address gay rights without looking like they are pandering.

… After this bill is passed [Ed. Note: And vetoed.], we should take our lobbyists off of Capital Hill for another six months and do nothing else until 2008. In this presidential election year, we should introduce hate crimes legislation, which has the least potential to create a backlash, since even our opponents profess that gay bashing is wrong.

And that leaves any challenge on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for 2009. Maybe. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that Besen’s ENDA revamp/passage/veto agenda is a best case scenario, and that it’s more likely that we can expect a hearing on ENDA at the most. Hate crimes is a tossup, I think, because most Americans may believe that gay bashing is wrong, but I’m not sure how many are sold on even the concept of hate crimes. Given that, a conservative list of reasonable expectations from the new Congress on gay issues can be pared down to one item: a congressional hearing on ENDA.

But what’s most interesting is the suggestion that backing-off on gay & lesbian issues will be doing the Democrats a favor, by not requiring them to take on any controversial LGBT issues upon returning to power, as it not only jibes with the general public’s low expectations for the new Democratic congress, but the Dem’s own modest plans as well.

Three Democratic congressmen who are about to take important leadership posts said on Sunday they plan to pass popular legislation blocked by Republicans but would refrain from pushing some of the most controversial elements on the liberal agenda.

The three, appearing on Fox News Sunday, are among the most liberal Democrats who will take over key committee chairmanships when Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in January.

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who will take over the U.S. House of Representatives committee that covers banking and other financial institutions, mentioned raising the minimum wage, providing cheaper drug coverage for the elderly and providing more affordable housing and help with college tuition as the focus of Democratic legislation.

“Our first efforts are going to be to do those things that I think the mainstream of America wants,” Frank said. “Some things have become liberal because the right wingers who control the Republican party have abandoned them to us.”

Asked about his opposition to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gay service men and women, Frank, one of the few openly gay members of the House, said he would fight discrimination but that issue was “not what we’re going to begin with.”

And maybe it’s for the best. I mean, if nothing else, with the Republicans out of power as the majority party at least we won’t see any attacks coming from Capitol Hill. The FMA is going to be pretty much DOA in the new congress, since it’s unlikely the remaining Republicans in congress will be able to bring it up for their usual grandstanding purposes. So in a sense, it’s an improvement to simply be left alone. Besides, just about every issue that the Democrats will tackle in the next Congress affect gay & lesbian Americans and our families in one way or another.

But I don’t think we should settle for that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not even suggesting any movement on same-sex marriage, or even that Democrats should explicitly support same-sex marriage. With the FMA off the table, I can’t see much of a reason the subject should come up in congress. And by all means, if ENDA and hate crimes are winnable in the next congress, I think we should push for them. But I think it’s also not too much to ask that Democrats remember the two principles at stake in even those fights.

Equality and dignity; the radical notions that people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of who they are and that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by virtue of being human beings. Those principles apply to same-sex marriage as well, and while Democrats may not want to risk losing the support that’s brought them back to power, I hope they can at least affirm that the party supports equality and thinks that all Americans and their families should be treated with basic dignity and respect.

I hope that’s not an unreasonable expectation.

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