Saturday night President Barack Obama addressed the annual National Dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest and most visible gay rights organizations in the world. In a speech interrupted 35 times for applause, the president declared his support for the LGBT community, pledged to work for “the same rights and responsibilities” for gay couples as for straight and to ask Congress to repeal the “so-called Defense of Marriage Act” (though he again stopped short of fully endorsing same-sex marriage), and promised to end the discriminatory ban on gays serving openly in the military by the end of his administration.
As I watched the speech on C-Span, I thought to myself, “This is why I voted for this man.” Far more than any of his predecessors, Obama has positioned himself as supporter and ally of the gay rights movement. It’s impossible to imagine George W. Bush giving a speech to this audience — and not just because Bush never seemed all that interested in the disenfranchisement of his gay fellow Americans, unless he was being asked by his conservative base to promise not to end it. What would Bush have even said to an audience of HRC activists? “As president I am proud to stand with you and declare to all the world that, yes, I agree with you that Liberace’s skill as a pianist have been unfairly maligned all these years.”
Or no, even better: “To those in this audience who say my administration has worked against your interests, let me remind you that my vice president’s daughter is a dyke just like a lot of you.”
I don’t think many members of the gay community and their straight allies need to be convinced that Barack Obama is light-years ahead of the last guy — of any of the previous holders of his office — on the issues of foremost importance to them. What is troubling a lot of us, though, is the president’s lack of action to go alongside all of his encouraging talk.
Following Obama’s speech, Andrew Sullivan wrote on his Daily Dish blog that it had been “much worse than I expected”:
He says he will end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell but he has done nothing, and he offered no time-line, no deadline for action and no verifiable record that he has done anything, despite his claims that he has.
He says he is ending the HIV ban, but it is still in force, a year and a half after it was signed by George W. Bush and passed by massive majorities in both houses.
He says he favors equality for gay couples but said nothing tonight to support the initiatives in Maine or in Washington State or the struggle in Washington DC for marriage equality. That’s a test of real sincerity on this matter. He failed it.
He says he wants to end discrimination in employment even as he is firing more gay people solely for being gay than any other employer in the country - as commander-in-chief. And if an employer is firing gay people all the time, is it tolerable to accept as a response that he will stop doing it one day - but gives no time-line at all to hold him to?
And Sullivan is far from the only voice in the gay rights community to have reacted this way to Obama’s speech. According to PrideSource, many of those who attended the $250-a-plate HRC National Dinner and saw Obama’s address firsthand felt the same way. The message to the president seems clear: Thanks for the support, now go do something.
It’s a perfectly reasonable request. Seems downright patient, given the circumstances.
In these early months of his presidency, Obama has chosen to walk the most difficult path he could have — the one that cuts right down the middle. He’s tried to keep one of his central campaign promises — to be a consensus builder — but that has also earned him enmity from both major political parties. The angry fringe of the Republicans, led by media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, reflexively attacks virtually every thing Obama does, accusing him of being a radical leftist trying to transform the U.S. into a socialist state; and meanwhile, many of his supporters in the Democratic party are starting to fear that he isn’t nearly enough of a leftist, giving him shit for failing to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, and pass serious healthcare reform, all while presiding over Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is the inaction on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Obama has promised, repeatedly, publicly, to end the ban on gays in the military. That’s good. That’s progress, that’s something neither of his two most recent predecessors ever did (certainly not Bill Clinton, who originated the DADT policy). Obama has said he is pursuing changing the policy through legislation, the idea being that a law ensuring gays the right to serve openly in the armed forces will be more durable and less likely to be overturned by a future administration. This is smart, and pragmatic, and Obama has definitely come across as a pragmatist these last nine months. The problem is, as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Obama has the power to end the ban on gays in the military right this second. He can issue an executive order ending the ban any time he wants. And if he feels an act of Congress would give the change more permanence, he can still push for that, too. But if he fears that an executive order alone won’t result in lasting change, let me modestly remind the president of something: racial segregation in the military was ended in 1948 by President Harry Truman, via Executive Order 9981. (No shit. Look it up.) That one certainly seemed to take. Why not try the same thing this time? Just a suggestion.
Still, I liked the speech. And I like Obama on gay rights issues. But look — I’m a white male heterosexual (fuck, for most of my life I was even ostensibly a Christian). I’m a member of the least-discriminated-against group of humans who have ever existed. I’ve never been victimized by bigotry, so I’m not suggesting that the gay rights advocates who are pissed at the president for dragging his feet ought to be more patient, or look on the bright side, or be grateful for the progress that’s already been made, or any of that horseshit. I’m not trying to say that, and I have no right to say it, anyway. I can only speak for myself. And I’m happy to have a president who is willing to give major speeches before gay rights groups. I’m happy to have a president who will voice his support for the LGBT community, especially in the wake of a particularly ugly fit of homophobia coming from the right over some Obama cabinet appointments. And I’m happy to have a president who reminds and encourages the people to hold his feet to the fire and insist he keep his promises, as Obama did several times in his HRC speech.
Yes, I wish he would strike down Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Yes, I wish he would come out and fully support same-sex marriage, not just domestic partnerships. Yes, I wish he would make a more overt statement of support for Kevin Jennings and Chai Feldblum, and tell the bigots on the radio losing their shit over their appointments to go fuck themselves. I get the frustration. But we elected the guy for four years. Maybe it makes me an apologist, maybe I only feel this way because my life isn’t being directly affected by the anti-gay discrimination still going on in this country, but I’m willing to give the guy his four years.
But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get a little shove in the right direction every now and then.