Here’s a story you likely know, at least in broad outline:
During his campaign, Obama promises progress on gay rights. Once in office, his rhetoric cools and — to be charitable — he doesn’t seem to be moving very fast. Then he makes things much worse with a dreadful brief his Justice Department files in defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Critics (including this one) erupt.
Chastened, Obama signs a memorandum extending a few lousy benefits to partners of federal employees. Then the lifting of the ban on HIV-positive travelers moves closer to reality. Hate crimes law should be a reality any day now, but other promises, like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)” and (especially) the Defense of Marriage Act remain just…promises.
Then, this past Saturday night, Obama headlines the gay dinner-to-end-all-dinners — the HRC soiree in DC — where he “opens” for the ubiquitous Lady Gaga.1 His speech makes more concrete (but with no timeline) his goal of repealing DADT and of passing ENDA (the federal non-discrimination law).
Some bloggers continue continue to howl. “When”? “Give us concrete times and dates!” In this vein, Andrew Sullivan titles his post on the speech “Much Worse Than I Expected.”2 Others read it differently. Nan Hunter, for example, thinks that the focus on DADT has occluded Obama’s subtle but important move towards the language of moral equality. (Her post is really worth your time; so is her blog, in general.) Sullivan would say (and has, in almost these words): “We know the man can give a great speech. Now he needs to shut up and do something.”
There’s the story. Now the question: Where to stand?
I’m trying to find some way of accommodating these two truths: First, Obama is an advocate (except on marriage). Second, so far and perhaps for good, he isn’t willing to expend much political capital on LGBT rights; so he moves slowly or (perhaps in the case of DOMA), not at all. This is advocacy in name (and soaring rhetoric) only.
Here are a few suggestions to help maintain your sanity. So far, they are working for me:
- Focus on the states, where marriage equality will continue to play out. Right now, Maine is hugely important. If Question 1, asking the voters to repeal the recently enacted marriage equality law, is voted down, then the right can’t argue about courts — or, weirdly, even legislatures — subverting the will of the people. Of course, some leadership from Obama wouldn’t hurt in this regard, either. (So far, silence).
- Be practical — not ridiculous, as in waiting for 2017 to render judgment, but realistic. If we get hate crimes and ENDA this year, as well as the regulatory repeal of the HIV travel ban, and the end of DADT next year, I’d swallow my disappointment over DOMA (not for long) and congratulate Obama on some actual accomplishments. (As I wrote here in summarizing the remarks of Chai Feldblum and others, getting legislation through Congress is tough because of the difficulty of getting their time and attention.)
- Continue agitating, and criticizing the Administration. Consider supporting organizations other than the HRC, at least until they can show something, anything, for their decades of black-tie fund-raising efforts.
Maybe this is too timid, maybe I’m too critical, maybe…I should go to bed.
- Who sang a freshly kitted-out version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that stands with the Elton John/Bernie Taupin retread of “Candle in the Wind” (to fit Princess Diana’s memorial) in the “lazy songcraft” pantheon. I’m sure the guests would rather have heard “Pokerface.” ↩
- Some context is useful here. Earlier, Sullivan had leveled HRC Pres Joe Solomonese for a letter he’d sent out supporting Obama, and suggesting that we wait until 2017(!) to evaluate his Presidency. Although some of the post is needlessly incendiary (esp. the title), Sullivan was right in the essentials, and it’s hard not to read Obama’s speech in light of the HRC’s bland acceptance of almost anything he says or promises to do. ↩