On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.
Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.
The time is always right to do what’s right.
~ Martin Luther King Jr.
During the presidential election, candidate Barack Obama had the following to say to LGBT voters, in an open letter posted at Obama Pride:
I’m running for President to build an America that lives up to our founding promise of equality for all – promise that extends to our gay brothers and sisters. It’s wrong to have millions of Americans living as second-class citizens in this nation. And I ask for your support in this election so that together we can bring about real change for all LGBT Americans.
Equality is a moral imperative. That’s why throughout my career, I have fought to eliminate discrimination against LGBT Americans. In Illinois, I co-sponsored a fully inclusive bill that prohibited discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity, extending protection to the workplace, housing, and places of public accommodation. In the U.S. Senate, I have co-sponsored bills that would equalize tax treatment for same-sex couples and provide benefits to domestic partners of federal employees. And as President, I will place the weight of my administration behind the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act to outlaw hate crimes and pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act to outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
As your President, I will use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws. I personally believe that civil unions represent the best way to secure that equal treatment. But I also believe that the federal government should not stand in the way of states that want to decide on their own how bes to pursue equality for gay and lesbian couples -whether that means a domestic partnership, a civil union, or a civil marriage. I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does. I have also called for us to repeal Dont Ask, Dont Tell, and I have worked to improve the Uniting American Families Act so we can afford same-sex couples the same rights and obligations as married couples in our immigration system.
But more recently, language objecting to DOMA was removed from the White House website.
After ThinkProgress and other outlets noted last week’s changes to the Civil Rights page on whitehouse.gov, watering down language on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Tips-Q noted that the website also has completely eliminated the portion objecting to the Defense of Marriage Act. As late as April 28, the website highlighted President Obama’s commitment to “repealing” DOMA, as a cached image shows:
Today, the website states only that Obama supports full “federal rights for LGBT couples”:
He supports full civil unions and federal rights for LGBT couples and opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
And an Advocate reporter’s question about the California ruling brought a press conference about Obama’s Supreme Court nominee to a dead halt.
Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked by CongressDaily for a President Obama’s reaction to the Proposition 8 ruling, ended the White House press briefing rather quickly Tuesday.
“Well, I have not talked to the president about it,” he said, adding that Obama’s views on the issue are well known. Then he ended the briefing.
Gibbs had taken nearly 40 minutes’ worth of questioning on the subject of the president’s U.S. Supreme Court pick, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, with only a few exceptions.
That, to date, has been the total of the Obama administration’s response.
We’ve been here, or someplace alot like this, before. In 1992, after 12 dark years of Reagan-Bush hostility to LGBT equality (Reagan ignored the HIV/AIDS epidemic, taking five years to even mention it, and then only response to reporters questions, while G.H.W. Bush declared he wouldn’t even hire gays to clean toilets at the White House), gay and lesbian Americans swooned when Bill Clinton said to us, “I have a vision for America and you are part of it.”
We all know how well that turned out, as Andrew Sullivan reminds us.
I recall my old, now dead, friend Bob Hattoy, who toiled in the Clinton administration. He was going to write a memoir of working with people who thought of homosexual rights as wonderful things to say you support (especially if you’re fundraising or at a Hollywood dinner party) but far, far too controversial to ever do anything about, let alone risk anything for. In the end, of course, the Clintons enacted a slew of brutally anti-gay measures – passing DOMA, doubling the rate of gay discharges from the military, signing the ban on HIV-positive tourists and immigrants – and expected standing ovations as pioneers of civil rights. The pathetic gay rights leaders gave it to them, so delighted were they to have their checks cashed. The proposed title of Bob’s book was a summary of the priorities of the Clinton years:
And here we are again, after eight of (arguably) the most anti-gay president ever (though not anti-gay enough for his party’s religious right base), having elected (arguably) the most pro-gay president ever.
Yet we’re not in exactly the same place. Somehow, despite the anti-gay fervor of the previous administration, we face better odds than previous civil rights movements faced when a sitting president did what was right, even if it wasn’t politically “safe” or expedient. We have arrived at a point where a growing number of states have legalized marriage equality, where many people are already living with the reality of marriage equality, and public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of marriage equality since it first hit the national radar in 1994. And signs indicate the trend is likely to continue in our favor.
Plus, we have a Democratic president and Congress with more political capital than any president or Congress has enjoyed in a long time. And what do we have to show for it?
As an adviser on gay rights to President Bill Clinton during his second term, I know how hard it is to achieve real progress. We learned that lesson acutely during Clinton’s abortive first-term attempt to allow gays to serve in the military, an outcome for which he is still paying a steep legacy price.
But recent victories on gay marriage, a youth-driven paradigm shift in public opinion and the election of our first African American president make this a uniquely opportune moment to act.
I understand that the president has his hands full saving the economy. But across a broad spectrum of issues — including women’s rights, stem cell research and relations with Cuba — the Obama administration has shown a willingness to exploit this change moment to bring about dramatic reform.
So why not on gay rights? Where is our New Deal?
It is the memory of 1993’s gays-in-the-military debacle (and a desire never to repeat it) that has both the president’s advisers and policy advocates holding back, waiting for some magical “right time” to move boldly.
This is a bad strategy. President Obama will never have more political capital than he has now, and there will never be a better political environment to capitalize on. People are distracted by the economy and war, and they are unlikely to get stirred up by the right-wing rhetoric that has doomed efforts in the past.
Not only has Obama been silent, but in the wake of the D.C. city council’s move to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, members of the House have introduced a new bill — the D.C. Defense of Marriage Act, which currently has about 33 cosponsors — including two Democrats. While it’s unlikely that the bill will find its way through the both houses of a Democratic Congress to Obama’s desk, there’s been no sign of Democratic leadership coming out against the bill or in support of D.C.’s move towards equality. The best that Speaker Pelosi has to offer is a brief declaration that Congress will stay out of it.
After at least two opportunities to step forward and take a principled stand in support of equality — in short, to do the right thing — leading Democrats are 0 for 2.
But why? If they’re in favor of equality because it is in harmony with their core values, why does confronting the issue always mean being in a tight spot for Democrats? Why does a Democratic president whose is in the middle of trying to deliver the health care reform he campaigned for have difficulty with providing health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
In separate, strongly worded orders, two judges of the federal appeals court in California said that employees of their court were entitled to health benefits for their same-sex partners under the program that insures millions of federal workers.
But the federal Office of Personnel Management has instructed insurers not to provide the benefits ordered by the judges, citing a 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama said he would “fight hard” for the rights of gay couples. As a senator, he sponsored legislation that would have provided health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
Now, Mr. Obama is in a tough spot. If he supports the personnel office on denying benefits to the San Francisco court employees, he risks agitating liberal groups that helped him win election. If he supports the judges and challenges the marriage act, he risks alienating Republicans with whom he is seeking to work on economic, health care and numerous other matters.
It comes down to a decision between what one believes is right and what one believes is politically expedient. The current trend, even among Democrats, is to sacrifice justice for the sake of political expediency. This is partially out of a desire to retain the support of voters who, while supportive of Democrats on many or even most issues, are more conservative on the ideal of marriage equality or gay issues in general.
The momentum may be in favor of marriage equality in the long run, but right now supporting marriage equality means bucking the majority of voters. But failing to speak out and act where progressive movement towards equality is possible is to reject the opportunity to speak to those voters who could be moved by leaders who can make the case to them.
Yes, this is work that must take place on the grassroots level for the most part. But gay people have been doing this every day for at least a few decades now, and the progress we’ve made is evident in the narrowing gap between support and opposition to marriage equality, and in the percentage of younger voters who support marriage equality.
However, we’ve been doing this work without much from Democratic leaders beyond the encouraging words we hear during campaigns. When the time comes to take a risk and enact policy that advances equality, Democrats freeze up. They may want to do it. They may believe its right. But they are afraid of the political risks involved, which stem from bargains Democrats made on the path to gaining the White House and a majority in Congress.
At the end of the day, LGBT voters have to ask ourselves if that’s enough.
Yes, Obama and congressional Democrats are in the middle of dealing with an economy wrecked by eight-plus years of conservative economic policy and deregulation, as well as trying deliver on health care reform, and deal with Iraq and Afghanistan. And yes, we may well benefit along with the rest of the society if they’re successful in these endeavors.
We do not have a “fierce advocate” in Washington. At best, we have nervous, reluctant support — of the variety we’ve settled for in the past, when we were just relieved to have people in office whom we thought would not legislate against us, and block the worst of what the opposition wanted to inflict on us. But there’s a limit to that, when presented with an obvious moment to place yourself on the right side of history.
So what’s stopping the Democrats from rectifying that legacy now? As Wolfson said to me last week, they lack “a towering national figure to make the moral case” for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South. When Obama invoked same-sex marriage in an innocuous joke at the White House correspondents’ dinner two weeks ago – he and his political partner, David Axelrod, went to Iowa to “make it official” – it seemed all the odder that he hasn’t engaged the issue substantively.
“This is a civil rights moment,” Wolfson said, “and Obama has not yet risen to it.” Worse, Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage is now giving cover to every hard-core opponent of gay rights, from the Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean to the former Washington mayor Marion Barry, each of whom can claim with nominal justification to share the president’s views.
In reality, they don’t. Obama has long been, as he says, a fierce advocate for gay equality. The Windy City Times has reported that he initially endorsed legalizing same-sex marriage when running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996. The most common rationale for his current passivity is that his plate is too full. But the president has so far shown an impressive inclination both to multitask and to argue passionately for bedrock American principles when he wants to. Relegating fundamental constitutional rights to the bottom of the pile until some to-be-determined future seems like a shell game.
The gay civil rights movement has fewer obstacles in its path than did Dr. King’s Herculean mission to overthrow the singular legacy of slavery. That makes it all the more shameful that it has fewer courageous allies in Washington than King did. If “American Idol” can sing out for change on Fox in prime time, it ill becomes Obama, of all presidents, to remain mute in the White House.
When the obstacles are fewer than other movements have faced, and falling one by one, we have to ask ourselves as a community why our supposed friends have yet to rise to the occasion, step into their bully pulpits, and help push us towards and beyond the tipping point that’s now in sight.
On paper, we have a president who — even taking his mostly semantic objection to same-sex marriage into account — is the most pro-gay we’ve ever had. We can hardly be blamed for expecting more. Can we?
It may be that Democrats — having just regained power after an extended stroll through the wilderness — fear what Johnson predicted in the 60s when he signed the Civil Rights act of 1965, will come true again: he said, “we just lost the south for a generation.” But Johnson also had some advice for civil rights activists of his time. He said, “I want to pass and sign your legislation, but you’ve got to make me do it.”
And are we the same country regarding sexual orientation now as we were regarding race then? Would Democrats risk losing after the gains made in the recent election?
More to the point, do they stand to lose anything by staying out of the fight until the risk is minimal and victory is all but assured? Is there a consequence for delaying the choice to get on the right side of history, and thus delaying justice along with it, until last page is almost written, the chapter nearly finished, and the ending all but known?
The day we begin asking ourselves these questions has come.
The day will come when we answer them for ourselves, and our friends.