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Obama’s Gay-Rights Record: Patience Vs. Protest

by Scott Stiffler - EDGE Contributor

Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama’s Gay-Rights Record: Patience Vs. Protest

It’s been just under ten months since Barack Obama took the oath of office. So why isn’t America a shiny, lavender-hued Shangri-La where LGBTs serve openly in the military, same sex marriage is the law of the land, AIDS funding has grown to meet actual needs, and heterosexuals erupt in applause as you swish your way down the street?

viewimage_story-2Some say Obama has turned his back on LGBTs. Some say he cares, but traction on many issues has gone from "Yes we can" to "Yes, we will, but not right now." Some say he’s a savvy, stealthy ally who’s waiting, cat-like, for a second term to pounce on each and every little thing we care about.

Pretty much everyone agrees, though, that the current administration is light years ahead of the tone set during the last eight years of Bush. They’re also asking: Is that enough?

An eclectic group of activists, academics and humorists commented on the current administration’s job performance thus far, gay-wise.

Who Does Live Up to Campaign Rhetoric?

As for whether or not Obama has lived up to the implied commitments or outright promises he made in order to get the lion’s share of the LGBT vote, Professor Gary Bailey of the Simmons College School of Social Work asks, "Does any candidate ever live up to their campaign rhetoric? I’d argue none of them ever do, or they would never get elected to office. This president came into office with more on his plate than any president in recent memory."

Humorist Kate Clinton shares that sentiment, and gives it an appropriate punchline. "President Obama is a thin man with a lot on his plate," she says. "We’re the lima beans. Yet I know from friends working deep within the administration that they are finding infrastructure in disarray from the anti-government hack years of Bush cronies and they are restaffing and rebuilding."

At least, Clinton says, we’re getting our foot in the door these days: "Friends that lobbied for eight years for LGBT funding and could either not get a meeting or got a distracted fifteen minutes, are finding that they are being heard and funded."

But There Have Been Gains

Mara Keisling confirmed that newfound access and acknowledgement Kate Clinton spoke of. The executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality also points to gains made via the recent House vote to include gender expression and identity in federal hate crimes legislatyion.

The Obama administration, Keisling adds, sent "a very high ranking official," acting chairperson Stuart Ishimaru, from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to an ENDA (Employment Non Discrimination Act) hearing earlier in the House earlier this year.

And last week, at a hearing in the Senate committee regarding ENDA, the administration sent the assistant attorney general for civil rights. "Every time they’ve had an opportunity to weigh in on ENDA, they have," she says. "And they’ve done it very strongly in our favor."

A Glass Half-Full?

Bailey says it’s important to recognize that much of what Obama has accomplished so far has directly benefitted the LGBT community, even if the issue didn’t come custom-wrapped in a rainbow-hued ribbon.

"There has been a Herculean effort to do things that are more under the radar than above it," Bailey says. "Health care is an LGBT issue. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 affects lesbians."

Some pro-LGBT actions initiated by the Obama administration occurred without much notice or comment from the press, conservative groups or politicians.

Bailey points out that the Obama administration has moved to recognize, through the State Department, marriages from Massachusetts. "That means passports are being issued in a same sex spouse’s name," he points out. "There’s also change going on in the United Nations, thorough Ambassador Rice, such as including LGBT language in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We were blocking that under the Bush administration."

Is the lack of immediate administrative action on big issues like gays in the military and same sex marriage really just a smokescreen for pushing through the less objectionable or sexy issues?

Kate Clinton, like Bailey, notes some significant developments on three fronts which failed to become contested hot button issues: "The administration has lifted the HIV immigration restrictions, signed The Hate Crime Statistics Act, and made census changes to count LGBT people."

So it doesn’t seem to much of a stretch, she reasons, to let gays carry guns and go to war: "They should drop Rahm Emmanuel’s Clinton era heebie jeebies about gays in the military--we’re all 16 years older now--and get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."

Like many gay activists, Clinton supports gay military personnel serving openly, if not the wars they are fighting: "President Obama, who got our hopes up opposing the war in Iraq, should remove the U.S. from both Iraq and Afghanistan, and stop the insane cycle of violence. Some say it’s a one-term guarantee, but I am not so sure."

Barbra "Babs" Casbar-Siperstein is a Democratic National Committee member and co-chair of the National Stonewall Democrats PAC Board, which met this past Saturday with speaker Nancy Pelosi at a Princeton, N.J., luncheon for Congressman Rush Holt. She believes in Pelosi’s confidence about ENDA, federal benefits for same sex couples, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and eventually, the Defense of Marriage bill.

That confidence, says Casbar-Siperstein, didn’t come with a timetable, although she says it’s important to recognize that once health care cleared the House, "the next thing that came up was ENDA, which will be marked up in committee this Wednesday."

What about administrative traction on the recently passed (by the House) addition of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression to federal hate crimes legislation?

Casbar-Siperstein recalls having been at the White House in June for the Stonewall 40th Anniversary reception: "I was next to Judy Shepard. He went over to her and said ’I am going to give Harry Reid a call to get the Hate Crimes bill moving.’ A week later, you could see the outward movement in the senate."

The Love-In Is Hardly Universal

But not all LGBT activists are so enamored of the president’s work over the past ten months. Blake Wilkinson, of the Dallas-based activist group Queer LiberAction, explains his group’s decision to protest Obama’s appearance at a rather fawning HRC fundraising gala which took place the night before October 11’s National March on Washignton.

"We’re of the opinion that instead of inviting Obama to deliver more flowery rhetoric and empty promises to our community, that we should seize the opportunity to make demands on Obama and the administration and all of our elected representatives," Wilkinson says.

Queer LiberAction’s actions that night are not just appropriate, but proof that such sentiment is "part and parcel of the growing criticism by the LGBT community towards the administration," he adds. "A lot are getting frustrated, and rightfully so."

He readily acknowledges that the recent LGBT hate crimes bill language is an important step in the right direction. "Even though we have our first piece of federal legislation in history, Obama has fallen through on the repeal of DOMA and the Defense of Marriage Act," he quickly adds. "And all the while he’s playing politics with our rights.

"If he was really interested in the needs and concerns of our community, he wouldn’t be delivering that address to the HRC. He’d be going to the Southern Baptist Convention. He said he’d be a ’fierce advocate’ for our rights, but he hasn’t done that. Obama is apparently against marriage amendments to state constitutions prohibiting marriage; but he can’t say a word about the bigotry being written into state constitutions in Maine and California."

So: Betrayal or Prudence?

Anne Wynne is founder of Atticus Circle, a national non-profit of primarily straight individual who seek to end discrimination. "I don’t think the president has failed to keep any promises he made as far as LGBT rights are concerned," she says. "Nor has he delayed any promises. There was never a timetable given. The idea that our children have rights that other children do not is especially offensive to me. Having said that, legislative action takes time. We are clearly moving in the right direction."

Is not having immediate action, and fast results, a betrayal by Obama, or just the necessary mechanics of getting things done in Washington?

Although we certainly should expect Obama to be aware of LGHT concerns, "we don’t want the president to be personally sitting in the White House saying, does the National Parks Department really need an anti-discrimination policy about public accommodations in national parks," remarks Keisling, to take an example of what some might see as a micro-issue. "What we do want is for the president to say my administration will listen to reason; my administration is willing to listen to what LGBT people really need, then to do what is right and what is possible."

OK, but what does happen once Obama embraces the notion of two dudes having the legal right to rent a cozy little cabin in one of our nation’s National Parks?

Keisling paints a grim picture of the maddeningly slow pace of things to come: "There’s a lot in the works, but they call is a bureaucracy because it is a bureaucracy. The White House can certainly say ’do this’--a public access provision for the National Parks.

"We need to make it clear they are allowed to rent a cabin like anybody else," she adds. "They need to figure out how to give notice to every park, every ranger; to figure out if there are any labor issues. Maybe they need new signage, so their signs don’t only say we don’t discriminate against race, gender, religion. They’ll have to replace those in every park."

Still, while the wheels grind slowly, Keisling says "We should keep demanding that things get done - but we’re all getting done as much as the movement’s bandwidth allows."

Wilkinson concurs that direct action is needed to keep pressure on the administration. But at the end of the day, the responsibility still falls on gay citizen-activists.

"There’s so much hope for change in Obama; but we should be placing our hopes in ourselves and in our community," Wilkinson says. "We should take lessons from previous civil rights movements; get out in the streets and make a stink about it. If Obama is going to capitualate on his promises, we’re not going to be sitting in front of a computer bitching on a blog. We’re going to be out in the streets holding our public officials accountable. If we had mass demonstrations in the streets the way we did with gay liberation and Act Up, then I think we would see serious advancement on a national level for our rights. Now, we’re not a movement; we’re in stagnation."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


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