Barack Obama: America’s First Gay President?
Our historic President is squandering an historic opportunity.
During his campaign, Barack Obama made some audacious promises to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. He supported the repeal of both “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. He rejected the Federal Marriage Amendment and any attempt to stifle state efforts to legalize civil unions or same-sex marriage. He stated that the federal government should recognize all state laws respecting such relationships. He called for a more comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and the inclusion of both sexual orientation and gender identity in federal hate crimes statutes. He supported Medicaid coverage for low-income, HIV-positive Americans, and sharp increases in funding for HIV/AIDS research. He endorsed the re-authorization of the Ryan White CARE Act and was a vocal advocate for expanding initiatives to deal with the increasingly global AIDS crisis. He wouldn’t support marriage equality — a stance we understood politically, but never accepted morally — but he did endorse civil unions that give same-sex couples the same legal rights and privileges as married heterosexual couples.
On paper, then, Barack Obama was perhaps the most LGBT-friendly Presidential candidate in the history of the United States. He was our candidate. When he was elected last November, we had every reason to hope that there would no longer be a gay America and a straight America. Under his leadership, we would finally become full, free, and equal citizens of the United States of America.
We are still waiting.
Granted, there are a few glimmers of hope. Over the summer, he posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American political official who was murdered some thirty years ago by a fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In July, Obama signed an executive order extending some benefits—though not full health-care coverage—to same-sex couples employed by the federal government. He has appointed some openly gay and lesbian people to important jobs in his Administration, most recently, David Huebner, the prominent gay attorney, who will become the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa if confirmed by the Senate. On the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion—the series of protests that marked the formal birth of the gay liberation movement in June 1969—President Obama invited 300 gay and lesbian leaders to the White House for a reception, where he gave one of his trademark speeches about “hope” and “change,” honoring the historic commitment of LGBT activists and pledging to “not only be your friend,” but also “an ally and a champion and a President who fights with you and for you.” This weekend, as we prepare to march on Washington for full equality, the President will give another one of these speeches at the fancy Human Rights Campaign annual dinner.
This hardly constitutes the bold agenda he promised us. Indeed, when it comes to full LGBT equality, President Obama is more symbol than substance, a lot of talk and not much action. This is painful for me to admit, because I was inspired by his candidacy, and worked very hard, along with so many others, to get him elected. Election Day 2008 was one of the greatest days of my life, notwithstanding the painful setbacks that came with the passage of anti-gay ballot initiatives in California, Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas. Still, there was ample cause to celebrate — and celebrate we did — because we finally had an ally in the White House who would fight with and for us.
In retrospect, we were foolish to have such hope. After all, given the history of the United States, we should know that Presidents are almost never out in front on matters of great social change. Despite the preponderance of candidates historically who have run on platforms of “change,” more often than not, Presidents play it safe. After all, Lincoln did not come into office an abolitionist. FDR did not come into office a union man. LBJ did not come into office a civil rights activist. And yet Lincoln saw to it that slavery was abolished, FDR signed legislation protecting the rights of workers to collectively bargain, and LBJ eventually pushed for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Each of these men—all great Presidents in terms of domestic policy—presided over periods of profound social transformation because they were moved by the progressive forces around them. But they were exceptions to the general rule. By definition, Presidents are conservative, even the liberal ones. Jesse Jackson has reminded us that social change only occurs when enlightened leaders are moved by an energized electorate. If Obama wants to be a truly great American President, he will need to become an enlightened exception.
Barack Obama may yet become our President, but he has a long way to go. In the meantime, we must remember that Obama is not the leader of our movement; he’s not even a member of our movement. He never has been and he never will be, and we cannot wait for him to come around. There is too much work to do, too many people suffering in silence and sickness, too many instances of violence and discrimination, too many laws to overturn and hearts and minds to change. Like the abolitionists and workers and feminists and civil rights activists before us, only we can determine our destiny and lay the path to our own liberation. Progress comes from the people, not the President.
That said, our movement stands in the midst of a curious paradox. On the one hand, it is intoxicating to think about all the progress we have made in a relatively short period of time. Many of us—though not nearly all of us—have a place at the table, a voice in the debate, the power and privilege to have some influence and get some things done. On the other hand, partial inclusion is not the same thing as full equality. It’s nice that Obama invited 300 of us to the White House on the anniversary of Stonewall, but it was troubling to see so many angry activists transformed into smiling sycophants at the mere prospect of a photo op with the President and First Lady. It’s gratifying to hear “gay and lesbian” included in the President’s speeches, but it’s frustrating to know that gay and lesbian concerns and perspectives are largely absent from his Administration’s policy agenda. It was energizing to hear candidate Obama call for the repeal of DOMA and maddening to watch President Obama’s Justice Department defend that same heinous law. It was a long overdue relief to know that candidate Obama would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and an unexpected slap in the face to hear that President Obama would sooner increase troops to fight the “good war” than end discrimination in the military once and for all. It is inspiring to see so many gay and lesbian activists, myself included, protest this weekend’s HRC affair, and insulting to hear that the dinner was sold out rather than shut down when the President agreed to deliver the keynote address. If the President wants to speak to us—all of us—and if he actually wants to hear from us, he should march with us, side by side, from this day forward.
Throughout his campaign, Obama frequently invoked the “fierce urgency of now.” He was quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington—a gathering not unlike this weekend’s march for LGBT equality. For King, of course, words meant nothing without action. And so it is worth remembering that nearly five months before his iconic speech, he had been arrested in Birmingham, AL—“the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”—for leading a series of protests against the city’s racist Jim Crow policies. From his cell, King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the great moral treatises of American protest literature, where he criticized not only the racists who sought to deny black people their full rights of citizenship, but also moderates who stood in the way of the more radical goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Five years later, King was dead, murdered in Memphis, TN, because he had the audacity to challenge his country to live up to its founding ideals.
Obama is hardly the first person to invoke Dr. King’s words for political purposes. And he is hardly the least deserving, considering the fact that his success has been made possible, in large measure, by the courage and sacrifice of Dr. King and his compatriots. That said, we should remember that the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” also contained these words: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Before Obama was elected, he went out of his way to convince the LGBT community that he is a man of good will, and that is why we are so frustrated with his inaction as President. Again, we can’t help but hear the words of Dr. King: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
We will wait no longer, Mr. President. It’s now, not never.
When Bill Clinton — another great gay hope who proved a bust — was elected, the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison famously referred to him as America’s “first black President.” Of course, Clinton wasn’t actually black. But Morrison meant it in a deeper sense — Clinton was a person who understood black people, who grew up with and around black people, who cared for them and about them, a white man willing to challenge America’s brutal legacy of slavery and racism by embracing a broad civil rights agenda. Whether or not Clinton lived up to this billing is a matter for another day. But Barack Obama has a similar opportunity with respect to the LGBT community. He can stand with us or work against us. He can become an ally or an adversary. If Bill Clinton was America’s first black President, surely our first black President can become America’s first gay President.