My take on the State of the Union address, over at 365gay.com. It’s a reminder that anything we might want to get done over the next couple of years will need to come from somewhere other than the often-useless U.S. Congress.
I spent most of yesterday seething over Sarah Palin’s incredible, “turn defense to offense” speech. The woman whose violent rhetoric has poisoned the political discourse by positing the President as enemy rather than opposition spoke from her secure bubble, denying responsibility on any level and positing a false equivalence between her actions and those of the Democrats.1
I’d pored through her text, marking of all kinds logical inconsistencies, and had planned a long post built around the snarky statement she’d made when accepting the VP nomination in 2008: As Mayor of Wasilla, she — unlike community organizer Barack Obama — had “actual responsibilities.” Of course, she has no patience with responsibilities: resigning as governor to line her pockets and enrich the public discourse with Tweets; and now this wholly uncharitable excoriation of those whose search for explanation for the Arizona tragedy dared to point out some inconvenient facts. (That isn’t to say that Palin’s to blame for what happened last week, just that it was proper to consider context — especially the statement that Rep. Giffords had made at the very time the gun sight map was issued. This is the most nuanced discussion of the complexity of the responsibility issue I’ve seen, and it’s from a conservative.)
But no more. After hearing Obama’s speech, I’m going to back away and say nothing further about Palin. (I already wrote more than I’d planned. It’s hard to help it.) Let’s focus on the memorial instead.
Although I thought there was something off-putting and almost creepy about the pep-rally response to this memorial speech — can you imagine a similar response to, say, the Gettysburg Address? — the speech itself was Obama at his finest. (I encourage those who haven’t heard the speech to read the transcript instead, or at least first. Then you get the beauty of the speech without the cheerleading. It’s here.) For me, this complex call to healing through expanding our vision was the highlight:
As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together. After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected.
Note the brilliant connection between the political and the deeply personal. And then he moved back to the victims, focusing on the only child killed, Christina Taylor Green. As a parent of twin girls not much younger than Christina, I was especially affected by his comments about her:
And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.
Mostly, this just made me want to be a better parent. But maybe that impulse will carry over into my dealings with others. Let’s hope so.
Here I refer to the infamous gun sights that populated her Congressional map; it’s true, as a Daily Dish reader noted, that some years before a map generated by Dems contained targets — but they weren’t gun sights. And even if they were, is that a good defense? Actually, maybe the gun sights aren’t worse than targets in a nation that allows assault weapons but outlaws lawn darts. ↩
Saturday’s Equality Forum panel highlighting some of the Obama Administration’s high-profile LGBT appointees had real fuego potential: Just the night before, Defense Secretary Gates had poured gasoline on activists’ dissatisfaction with Obama et al., advising Congress not to repeal DADT until after the implementation study had been completed. (Here‘s a good summary of what’s been happening.) Many see this as a clear sign that repeal won’t happen until next year, or, in one doomsday scenario, until 2013. Into this tempest strode Brian Bond, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; Jenn Jones, Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing (in HUD); an Jeremy Bernard, Director of White House and Congressional Affairs for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Firing questions were moderator Jarrett Barrios, who showed both a whip hand and a new technology facility (7,000 folks were following on Twitter, and some of their questions were asked), and Kevin Naff, Editor and co-founder of DC Agenda (and former Editor of the Washington Blade, which is now up and running again. Great news, if a bit too DC-inside for me to follow.)
I’d say that Bond, Jones, and Bernard are all delighted to be working for Obama Administration. And why shouldn’t they be? By one estimate, there are now about 125 openly LGBT (yes, even two transgendered) people serving in the Administration, including twenty-two “Senate confirmables.” (That term is technically the most accurate, as not all of them were actually confirmed by the Senate; a few took their places via the recess appointment route. Apparently, life in government during the interminable Bush years was a hell-hole, with most formerly out gay and lesbian folks scurrying back into the closet to save their jobs. (I know, it doesn’t sound courageous, but would you give up a job working for the federal government? Are you sure?) Today, the whole atmosphere is different — the first Obama-era meeting of the federal LGBT association drew about sixty people, and the numbers have been increasing. Bond mentioned that committees have been set up to address LGBT issues, including how health care reform can be addressed with relevance to our community. Bond suggested this clip (which, it must be said, mentions him!) as a way of emphasizing the Administration’s commitment to inclusiveness. It’s long, but moving in that Joe Biden kind of way (especially beginning at about 7:00):
But, to ask the hard question: Has this Administration been good for anyone besides the people with the jobs? Are they tokens to placate us, or are there reasons to think they can or will make a difference?
They already have. Jones discussed a pending regulation that will redefine family in a broader way that will include same-sex couples, a rule change that is now in the review and comment period. Bond reminded us of the recent memorandum that Obama issued to HHS, directing that agency to promulgate regulations that will require almost all hospitals to respect the visitation wishes of patients. Given the first question, I asked whether those initiatives weren’t really measures that were much more than LGBT measures, but ones that would support all kinds of family structures that are currently fenced out under our marriage uber alles regime. “That’s a very good question,” replied Bond. (Of course it is.) Everyone from nuns to WWII vets without spouses can benefit from a sane visitation policy, and the new housing rules will be designed to recognize (and therefore to qualify for housing) all kinds of alternative family structures. (Jones, who grew up in a housing project in Tulsa, has a deep commitment to public housing and those who need it. So it’s not surprising that her advocacy is broad and inclusive.)
There’s more. Under Bush — whom I’m learning to despise even more since the end of his illegitimate Presidency1 — NEH career-types were dispirited because the merit process in place for determining grant winners had been upended by the department head who routinely overrode decisions that offended conservative sensibilities. Now, the process is allowed to work as designed — which of course means that more subversive work will sometimes be chosen.
I know, I know: I’ve buried the lead here. Where’s the good part, the part where Barrios and Naff lay into the beleaguered Obam-ites over ENDA, DOMA, and especially DADT? I’m getting to that, but I wanted to put some of the good stuff Obama’s doing out there — because these regulatory and policy changes don’t get the press they should, and because tomorrow’s post on my conversation with Dan Choi will provide plenty of pure, righteous, and corrective criticism.
OK, so the fireworks, such as they were: Naff flatly stated that Obama was “not a fierce advocate” for our community, because that term applies only to those who put something on the line, and Obama hasn’t. I think that’s fair. The sub rosa stuff is vitally important to the day-to-day lives of LGBT people, but it’s (mostly) pretty low-risk. And when the chips are down, Obama hasn’t thus far been willing to stand up and shout for us, the way he did so effectively for health care. He’s not taking DADT repeal out on the hustings, making the argument in town halls, colleges, and stadiums. Instead, we get this bewildering “repeal it, don’t repeal it now, declare a moratorium” dance that hardly provides the support that wavering Congressmen and women need.
Would anyone from the Administration defend the Gates memo? Bond did, saying that the Prez was committed to repeal, that it was a question not of “if” but of “how,” and that repeal would happen “soon and right.” He acknowledged, though, that it was going to be messy. But of course it is — let’s see what happens during the next few weeks.
Jeremy Bernard, who seemed to strain not to be too critical (maybe that was just my perception), may have made the money statement that summed up the disconnect between the panel and the angry activists: “We all have our roles. We’re on the inside.”
Yes, they are.
No, “Justice” Scalia, I won’t “get over” Bush v. Gore↩
Passably, Mr. President, but just. Here‘s my column over at 365 explaining my reasons. Obama gets credit for the administrative and judicial enforcement stuff he’s doing. As for legislation? Not so much.
Last night’s surprise action by President Obama was a heartening and welcome development. In a two-page memo to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Obama requested that the Secretary promulgate rules that will increase the chances that the wishes of lesbian and gay hospital patients respecting visitation and decision-making will be respected rather than ignored. From the memorandum:
It should be made clear that designated visitors, including individuals designated by legally valid advance directives (such as durable powers of attorney and health care proxies), should enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy. You should also provide that participating hospitals may not deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
So far, I’ve not seen any criticism of this move from the right. I don’t expect much (but please let me know if you find any), because mostly everyone has conceded this point: “Oh, I’m in favor of gay people being able to visit each other in the hospital.” It’s an easy bone to throw us to make homophobia seem tolerant, and it has the benefit of feeding into the perception they’re trying to sustain that gay people are “sick.” So it’s a brilliant, unassailable — and overdue — move by the President.
What little criticism I’ve seen has come from the gays our ownselves. Here’s Andrew Sullivan:
There is something about the well-meaning liberal mind that is often admirably eager to help the needy, but balks at offering the recipients what we really want: simple equality. The latest move – giving Obama an easy win, the gay lobby a role in mediating the transaction – perpetuates the victimology that sustains the Democrats and their interest groups.
If we had marriage equality, we’d need no-one’s compassion. We’d just be able to live our lives. Why won’t the president help us do that?
As someone who’s written both windy law review articles and blog posts arguing for marriage equality for the past decade plus, I’m not going to disagree about the importance of “simple equality” which would make a great number of other issues disappear. (And it really is simple.) But read the Memorandum closely and you’ll see that the requested change goes far beyond marriage equality: The idea is to allow people to designate the person of their choice (either “on the spot” or through advance directives) to visit them in the hospital.
Yes, this will help those of us in same-sex relationships to avoid some of the horrors that our community has suffered, such as the inhumane and just inexplicable case that unfolded in Florida recently. But it will also help people in all kinds of relationships that the law doesn’t recognize, and never will. That respect for individual autonomy and decision-making in the most challenging circumstances is the great accomplishment of this Memorandum, and it shouldn’t go unacknowledged.
One more point: There’s a limit to what a President can accomplish all by himself, but these Executive Orders and Memoranda should be coming fast and furious. Obama could have issued this Memorandum immediately after taking office. While that would have been too late for Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond in Florida, there have doubtless been many others since January 2009 who could have been at their partners’ side during those terrible final hours. What a needless shame.
When Obama was seeking the Presidency, the GLBT community had a well-defined punch list of action items, and he promised big things on all of them: repeal of DADT; repeal of DOMA (although he doesn’t support marriage equality); passing ENDA; passing inclusive hate crimes law (the only hole punched so far). A few others, notably the administrative implementation of the-then recent repeal of the insane prohibition against HIV-positive immigrants, were perhaps further down on the list, but also up for discussion. Conspicuously absent from the mainstream agenda has been an item of interest to the public health community: lifting of the ban on gay blood donors.
So I was buoyed to see that just a few days ago, a group of sixteen U.S. Senators sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging the agency to reconsider its twenty-seven-year-old lifetime ban (“deferral” is the quaint term used, but it’s politely Orwellian in this case) on blood donations for men who have had even one sexual encounter with another man.
The policy is long overdue for an overhaul. As the letter notes, the policy is inconsistent with various other exclusions, and is an artifact of a time when all that was really known of HIV infection — and we weren’t even calling it that, in 1983 — is that it disproportionately struck gay men. Even today, MSM (“men who have sex with men,” which is the term used by the CDC because it focuses on sexual behavior, rather than on orientation) are prohibited, forever, from donating blood if they have had sex, even once, with another man, at any time since 1977. The Senators’ letter points out the many inconsistencies in the policy, including the fact that there’s no exclusion of those who have had high-risk, unprotected heterosexual sex, no matter how recently. Even more absurdly, those who have had heterosexual sex with those known to have HIV are only deferred for one year; not for 33! And “sex” isn’t defined when it comes to MSM: the safest kind of protected sexual acts are, in theory, treated the same as the riskiest.
It should go without saying that none of this can be justified from a public health perspective.
These inconsistencies should be enough to sink the policy which, as the letter notes, has lately been repudiated by the major blood banking organizations, most significantly including the Red Cross. But the problems are much deeper and more serious than even the letter recognizes. A few years ago, I discussed the issue in detail in this law review article. Here, I’ll summarize the arguments I made there that weren’t explicitly raised in the letter.
First, while the CDC is careful to distinguish behavior — men having sex with men — from identity, the FDA policy undermines this sound epidemiological distinction by effectively collapsing the two. By excluding any man who’s had any kind of “sex” (not defined!) with even one other man during the past thirty-plus years, the FDA has created a policy that isn’t about relevant behavior, but about some weirdly expansive view of (gay) sexual orientation. Because if it were about behavior, the line would have been drawn in an entirely different place; say, for a year after specifically identified, high-risk behavior.
Second, the policy undermines trust in public health in a few related ways. Obviously, as a practical matter the policy isn’t enforceable, and the sheer breadth of it has doubtless caused many to ignore it. People aren’t stupid: Gay men who know they have an HIV-negative serostatus might give blood, understanding that they pose no threat. (According to this very unscientific poll over at 365gay.com, almost 200 of 800 respondents admitted to having lied about their sexual practices on the questionnaire.) But by attempting to fence them out, the FDA has sent gay men an unwelcome message that could undermine the community’s trust in other ways. One important public health principle is that it recognizes the long-term value of respecting the dignity of all populations.
Why has the policy persisted for so long? One argument seems sensible, at first blush: If the exclusion were changed to, say, one year, there would be some infinitesimal increase in the number of HIV-positive blood transfusions (well less than one in a million, it’s estimated), so why do anything to increase the risk? But the “let’s not do anything if there’s a tiny risk of harm” canard — which, by the way, is also prevalent in arguments against marriage equality — wouldn’t be, and hasn’t been, applied to any other category of people, or of conduct. Of course there will be some tiny uptick, not because of the three-week window period between infection and ability to identify it, which any contemplated new rule would easily accommodate, but because of the irreducible human error associated with the process: If you add more people, some will get through who should not. But this could be said of any proposal to add donors; it’s just that “MSM” have had such a draconian policy applied to them for so long that the donor baseline is essentially zero for this group.
It seems that uprooting this policy is fairly far down on the priority list for the LGBT community. Indeed, this story seems to have attracted but little attention. But messages matter. The radical, embarrassingly outdated FDA policy sends a terrible signal that ought to concern us. It’s good to see that someone is finally suggesting action. Will Obama back them up?