On Saturday, October 10, President Barack Obama spoke at The Human Rights Campaign (HRC)’s 13th Annual National Dinner, where he highlighted his political support of the LGBT community. The speech, which attempted to move forward even as it included vague promises, illuminated a tense relationship with the LGBT community and gay-rights advocates.
The HRC dinner took place at the end of a week defined by new legislation that will directly affect America’s LGBT citizens. On October 8, the House of Representatives voted to expand the definition of federal hate crimes to include those committed on the basis of a victim’s sexual orientation. The president’s support of the hate crimes legislation, one of few concrete measures he has taken to “build a more perfect union...in which gay Americans are an important part,” was a cornerstone of the speech. Not everyone accepted the upbeat message. The dinner’s audience was composed primarily of high-paying donors, and outside, protesters expressed frustration with Obama’s decision to attend a formal fundraiser but not the National Equality March that would take place the next day. “Speaking to these selected audiences does nothing for our community,” Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network, told The nation. “All it does is allow a few A-list gays to kiss up to the president and potentially get some jobs.”
Obama was quick to acknowledge criticism: “I greatly appreciate the support I’ve received from many in this room. I also appreciate that many of you don’t believe progress has come fast enough.” The president discussed the universality of policy changes on which he is currently at work. “I think it’s important to remember that there is not a single issue that my administration deals with on a daily basis that does not touch on the lives of the LGBT community,” he said to a round of applause. “We all have a stake in reviving this economy.” Obama gestured obliquely toward the future: “While progress may be taking longer than you’d like as a result of all that we face—and that’s the truth—do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach.”
There are four actions that constitute the current gay rights movement’s primary legislative goals: the aforementioned hate crimes law, an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and the overturning of both Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Obama assured the audience that he is aligned with that of the LGBT community on these goals. The hate crimes bill and ENDA have both been circulating in Congress—in various forms—for the past 10 years. Both laws nearly passed but were ultimately killed by veto threats from President George
“We have never had a stronger ally in the White House—never,” HRC President Joe Solmonese told the New York Times. “The word from this White House [regarding the hate crimes bill], unlike the last White House was, ‘Get on with it. No more delays.’ ”
Among these issues, it was DADT—the ban on openly gay Americans’ military involvement—that Obama most comprehensively addressed. “We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country...I will end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. That’s my commitment to you,” Obama said, renewing a campaign promise. Though he never made a major talking point of DADT, Obama issued a policy statement to the HRC during the presidential election pledging to repeal it. But since Obama’s promise continued to lack a timeframe or logistical details, many members of the LGBT community read this attempt at placation as further validation of their critique.
It is possible that the president’s delay in action is the mark of political pragmatism. Obama is faced with not only opposition to changing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but external factors that render structural changes in the military all the more complicated. Though Obama did not discuss these difficulties at the HRC dinner, he has expressed them in the past. During a speech to LGBT political leaders at the White House in June, he said, “As Commander-in-Chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and way that takes over the long term.” In 1993, it was, after all, President Clinton’s impulsiveness in overturning a preexisting regulation on gay military involvement that led to DADT—a blunder that, at the time of its conception, masqueraded as a compromise, a step forward. As opposition to Clinton increased, Congress responded by enacting the ban on gays in the military into law. The White House scrambled to find a compromise and the result was DADT, which forces gay service members to conceal their identity or risk expulsion. The law has resulted in the discharge of approximately 13,000 people.
The president’s unprecedented social liberalism and his stance on gay marriage form a tenuous combination. Though Obama may not be as progressive as some would like, there has never been a more progressive ally in the White House. And on this basis, even his minimal action can still be interpreted as action. Yet his support of civil unions over same-sex marriage sends a message that he does not promote the full goals that most advocates of gay rights seek. Though Obama plans to relegate same-sex marriage to the realm of state issues and will not block any state from legalizing it, he supports the definition of marriage as an act between one
man and one woman.
Joe Lyman, a volunteer with the LGBT activist group Join the Impact, praises the Obama administration’s stance on gay marriage, because, as he told the nation, it enables “more victories on the state level.” But Cleve Jones, lead organizer of the HRC’s October 11 march, and Wayne Ting, a member of Equality Across America, disagree. Jones has criticized the state strategy as “incomplete and impermanent,” according to The Nation.
“There’s no halfway on equality. Either you’re a politician who believes in full equality in all fifty states or do not. That’s it,” Ting told The Nation.
KATIE LINDSTEDT wants change by B’11.