Monday, June 15, 2009

Obama and the Gays: Where's the Leadership?

By Leah McElrath Renna

In the wake of the tragic murders of reproductive rights activist, Dr. George Tiller, and the Holocaust Museum security guard, Steven Johns, I know I was not alone among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans in thinking to myself, "Next it will be one of us." The time for outspoken leadership by President Obama on behalf of all of the targets of right-wing hate -- including LGBT Americans -- is here.

For some time now, many non-straight people have apparently been so relieved not to be in the bull's eye of the White House's political target practice that we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by Obama's cool. We have taken the risk of giving Obama a pass because we have chosen to believe that his personal views are not actually in alignment with his public declarations. We have allowed this belief to make us complacent.

Well, I am over the cool. The cool and the relief of not being under constant attack bought my complacency for only so long. Now, I am ready and waiting for actual leadership on the civil rights of LGBT Americans.

The fact is that we actually do not know what Obama's personal views are on marriage equality for same-sex couples. And that shouldn't really matter. Because we do know he was on record at one point as supporting marriage equality and then that changed. We also know that he now espouses the tired rationalization that so many Democrats rely upon: "Aw, gee, I'm all for equal rights, but my religion doesn't let me get behind the calling it 'marriage' thing for you all. Sorry."

But, for some reason, we allow -- without open challenge -- this Constitutional legal expert to use his personal religious beliefs as an excuse to espouse support for a separate but equal policy and not to speak out for civil equality for all Americans? Really?!

Are we that desperate?

Let's say, just hypothetically, that a meeting took place between certain administration officials and certain leaders of prominent LGBT rights organizations. And let's say, again hypothetically, that the administration laid out its plan for dealing with hate-crimes legislation, employment discrimination, and military discrimination in a characteristically controlled and pragmatic way. Further, let's say -- still talking hypothetically here -- that, within that plan, the repeal of the travesty of the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) was scheduled to be addressed during the administration's presumptive second term. Let's also theorize hypothetically that some LGBT leaders were apparently so happy to be let behind the curtain that they simply nodded in response. Not acceptable.

Note to President Obama, his advisors and LGBT Grand Poobahs everywhere: that's NOT leadership. It's political strategy, sure, but it's not presidential leadership. And it's not enough.

We have a president capable of giving the most nuanced speech on race issues that our nation has heard in our lifetimes and maybe ever. We have a president capable of speaking out on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in some of the most clear-sighted, fair-minded and fully balanced language ever delivered by an American leader. We have a president who is not only intelligent, a Constitutional scholar and a gifted orator -- but one who has demonstrated the capacity for courage and unifying leadership at time when such leadership is sorely needed and lacking.

What better time is there than the 40th anniversary of Stonewall during a period in American history when state after state is also deciding in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples for the president to speak out on behalf of full civil equality for LGBT Americans? Strategy and pragmatism are useless without the flexibility to seize a moment.

In the spirit of pragmatism and domestic realpolitik, I'll even make a suggestion to President Obama and his advisors: you simply need to make progress.

If President Obama were to come out and say that the movement of more states in recognizing same-sex marriage equality highlights the unfairness of DOMA and the need to have it repealed or overturned, that would be progress. If President Obama were to come out and say that his own prayerful thought has led him to begin to reconsider his stance on marriage equality, that would be progress. If President Obama were to come out and say that the language in his own Justice Department's response to a legal challenge to DOMA was unnecessary, wrong and dehumanizing (invoking incest and child abuse, no less), that would be progress. It would be, in his words, change.

Should President Obama come out with unequivocal verbal support -- and even actual action -- on behalf of marriage equality and many other LGBT civil rights concerns? Yes. That would be truly courageous leadership and would be far superior to the carefully parsed language (and countless "umms" in the midst of other notable eloquence) to which we are currently subjected on our issues.

Nevertheless, incremental progress from such a highly visible and respected source has an impact beyond the incrementalism of the change itself. So, I'll take even that as a start.

President Obama, speak out and act now on behalf of the humanity and full civil equality of LGBT Americans. Be the leader you are capable of being. The moment is yours to seize.

Barack Obama
Gay Marriage

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