Friday, 19 June 2009

Obama and the Gays

There has been much kerfuffle lately from unhappy gay rights activists who would like to see more and better activity from the Obama administration on their issues.

And fair enough, really. Gay men and women have made huge advances over the past two decades in cultural/social terms, in terms of local and state legal rights and in other countries (including here in the UK, where they benefit from a civil partnership law that includes immigration rights for foreign partners). But progress at the level of the US federal government has been epically slow. Bill Clinton famously crashed and burned badly in his efforts, very early in his first term, to allow gays to serve openly in the military - and instituted the Don't Ask Don't Tell "cure" that may be worse than the disease. Later on, facing massive Republican backlash and the loss of Democratic congressional control, he signed the so-called Defence of Marriage Act barring any recognition of same state-endorsed sex partnerships at a federal or interstate level. Then came the W. years, about which the less said the better.

So folks are antsy. Edgy. Angry, even, and feel like their rights are well past due.

In fact, what am I doing with the "they" - I'M antsy, edgy, angry. Even us straight folks can get pretty invested in civil rights for our gay friends and family, and frankly I'm well past ready for some action - this isn't an area where I feel like we can afford to compromise over the long term.

[Two incidents come to mind, as a sidebar: 2) I remember listening to a fellow DA activist talk at length about his brilliant strategy to win over Evangelical Christians, and at some point he said Democrats needed to get over our "obsession" with gay rights if we want to win. I told him if we sell out the gays I was leaving the party. There's such a thing as right and wrong.

2) During one of our monthly speakeasies there was a heated discussion underway about gay marriage, and one of our longstanding activists got very agitated saying she was angry that we were even discussing this "when there's a war on and we should be talking about important things." I told her, "what we're talking about is important to me, it's important to a lot of people in this room, and the civil rights of US citizens matters.")

So, yes, I would like to see Obama get moving on this. Not INSTEAD of what he's already doing - health care matters. A lot. Ending the war matters. Fixing the economy matters. But yes, so do the civil rights of gay men and women for whom they have been a long time comin'.

BUT - it's worth having a look a little bit more closely at Obama's real record so far on gay rights and what he says his agenda is here.

For starters, I think it's worth making a clear distinction between 1) advances in gay rights that are still on hold but where Obama is on record as in support and 2) areas where he has taken action that seems to contradict his promises.

Gays in the Military

Obama has said consistently that he supports ending the Don't ask Don't tell policy. In May, he sent this letter to discharged service member Sandy Tsao, promising to fulfil his commitment.

On the other hand, the policy remains in effect at this point, and ALSO in May Obama's military discharged a gay Arab linguist - clearly a vital combat personnel if ever there was one.

The reason Obama's people say that he hasn't yet moved is their belief that changing the policy would require congressional action. So, is there any plan to push for congressional action? Well, not so much.

It seems that Congress thinks it should be done by Presidential order.

Stalemate. Frustration. It's too early yet to declare this an intentional inaction by the White House - but frankly they could do more.

Federal Benefits

On the other hand, the administration HAS taken action on another area of gay rights within the President's discretion - providing some benefits to same sex partners of federal workers.

Do watch the President's very interesting statement on this:

Now, these benefits are not as broad as they might have been - the Defence of Marriage Act prohibits Obama from offering certain key benefits, most notably health care.

But this IS a step. It's something real that a gay couple has today that they didn't have yesterday. Advances in federal recognition of gay couples aren't so common that we can afford to ignore them when they do happen.

All the more so since this builds on an earlier announcement via the State Department that granted special rights to same sex partners of foreign service workers - critical for these workers, whose spouses are often shunted around the world relying only on the good will of the US government to keep them together.

That's also something very real - and in both cases, I think, these policies also make for good government: making federal employment a more attractive option for the best and the brightest among the gay community by starting to keep pace with benefits already offered by major private sector employers.

The fact that these most concreate advances from the administration are aimed at federal workers certainly is partly because this is where Obama has the most direct control. It may also have something to do with the fact that the most powerful openly gay person to serve in this (or any) White House is John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel and Management.

My verdict: A good start in this area.


And this is where all the action is - after what was for many a heartbreaking loss for the movement last November when California's proposition 8 passed, banninggay marriage in California, same sex marriage has taken a surprising leap forward with legalisation in Iowa and Maine, recognition of out of state marriages in Washington DC, and marriage just on the brink of legality in New York.

The spread of legal gay marriage means that gay men and women are now chafing against the restrictions of the (Clinton signed) Defense of Marriage more strongly than ever before as many couples are now legally married in their home state but unable to have their marriages recognised should they move out of state.

Obama has stated his support for overturning DOMA - and he repeated it again in the video linked above:

That's why I stand by my long-standing commitment to work with Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. It's discriminatory, it interferes with States' rights, and it's time we overturned it.

No one could argue that those are weasel words.

And yet...

And yet, much of the anger in the LGBT community has precisely centered around doubts about the President's seriousness on DOMA. And many of those doubts were given expression over what some consider a needlessly insulting DEFENCE of DOMA in a brief from Obama's own Justice Department. Although the administration's position was that they were legally obligated to defend the current law, many gay (and straight) advcates for marriage equality felt that the specifics of the brief went too far in making those arguments. John Aravosis, of America Blog, is especially angry.

But, Representative Barney Frank - the first gay man ever elected to Congress and still the most pugnacious, cutting, brillant, crusading congressman around - says that on reading the brief it's actually... not that bad.

“Now that I have read the brief, I believe that the administration made a conscientious and largely successful effort to avoid inappropriate rhetoric. There are some cases where I wish they had been more explicit in disavowing their view that certain arguments were correct, and to make it clear that they were talking not about their own views of these issues, but rather what was appropriate in a constitutional case with a rational basis standard – which is the one that now prevails in the federal courts, although I think it should be upgraded.”

"And I will work with the Obama administration as they have promised to do to enact laws protecting LGBT people from hate crimes, from job discrimination, and from discrimination in the military. I will also be critical when I think inappropriate language is used. But after rereading this brief, I do not think that the Obama administration should be subject to harsh criticism in this instance.”

OK. Interesting. So who to believe?

For what it's worth, I thought this blogger had the most useful analysis of this situation that I have read so far - one of those (not so rare) cases when it can be useful to hear from a lawyer.

Verdict: Unclear. Obama has clearly stated his desire to see DOMA overturned. It's not clear whether he had any choice other than to allow his Justice Department to write that brief.

What you believe about this incident - and about all of Obama's positions on gay rights probably depends on where you think his heart lies.

Is he a reluctant advocate for gay rights, lured on by the necessity of cozying up to this strong Democratic constituency?

Or his he an instinctive advocate - someone who deep down inside would like to be bolder on these issues but who is determined that it is more important to be sure of victory than to move too soon?

None of us can see inside anyone else's heart. And Our President is a pretty cool cat - he's not prone to displays of gushing emotion, so you probaby wouldn't catch him welling up over gay weddings. But I've been watching him pretty closely for a long time now, and I've never seen anything to suggest he is anything other than sincere in his desire not just to talk a good game for gay men and women, but to really deliver for them. He's a pragmatic operator, not a crusader.

In Summary: I believe Obama has already made some important strides for gay rights - and I think he has a lot more work to do. Fortunately, he's got more time to make it happen.

I think we need to keep pressing Obama on these issues. Not because we don't trust or believe him, but because it will actually be a lot easier (pragmatically) for him to get these things done if he can point to an undeniable push from those of us who care about this issue. We should do it politely, calmly, but firmly.

UPDATE: And, in timely fashion (clearly following my blog closely for hints of important issues) apparently the Obama administration has now scheduled a series of meetings with Gay rights groups next week. Good.

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