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.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Oh SNAP! Eric Holder lets 'em know who's in charge

Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee Jeff Sessions takes Attorney General Eric Holder to task for releasing torture memos (cuz torture itself isn't offensive, apparently, but sharing legal memos that provided unconvincing legal rationales for torture is the end of the Republic. Or something. I'm still waiting for my Republican to English dictionary to arrive). In the course of it, he seems to forget for a moment that Holder is, in fact, in charge now. Holder sets him straight, but quick.

SESSIONS: Well it was disapproved by your predecessor, Judge Mukasey, and Mr. Hayden, the CIA, um, DIA [sic] director. They didn’t approve of that at all. … You were willing to release matters that the DNI and the Attorney General believe were damaging to our national security.

HOLDER: Well, one attorney general thought that. I am the Attorney General of the United States, and it is this attorney general’s view that the release of that information was appropriate, as well as the president of the United States. I respect their opinion, but I had to make the decision, holding the office that I now hold.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

This is Why

I don't usually repost the mass e-mails I receive from the Obama mailing list directly - figuring that most of you will get them anyway. But this one felt special. Here it is in entirety:

Karin --

Last year, millions of Americans came together for a great purpose.

Folks like you assembled a grassroots movement that shocked the political establishment and changed the course of our nation. When Washington insiders counted us out, we put it all on the line and changed our democracy from the bottom up. But that's not why we did it.

The pundits told us it was impossible -- that the donations working people could afford and the hours volunteers could give would never loosen the vise grip of big money and powerful special interests. We proved them wrong. But as important as that was, that's not why we did it.

Today, spiraling health care costs are pushing our families and businesses to the brink of ruin, while millions of Americans go without the care they desperately need. Fixing this broken system will be enormously difficult. But we can succeed. The chance to make fundamental change like this in people's daily lives -- that is why we did it.

The campaign to pass real health care reform in 2009 is the biggest test of our movement since the election. Once again, victory is far from certain. Our opposition will be fierce, and they have been down this road before. To prevail, we must once more build a coast-to-coast operation ready to knock on doors, deploy volunteers, get out the facts, and show the world how real change happens in America.

And just like before, I cannot do it without your support.

So I'm asking you to remember all that you gave over the last two years to get us here -- all the time, resources, and faith you invested as a down payment to earn us our place at this crossroads in history. All that you've done has led up to this -- and whether or not our country takes the next crucial step depends on what you do right now.

Will you donate whatever you can afford to support the campaign for real health care reform in 2009?

It doesn't matter how much you can give, as long as you give what you can. Millions of families on the brink are counting on us to do just that. I know we can deliver.

Thank you, so much, for getting us this far. And thank you for standing up once again to take us the rest of the way.


President Barack Obama

This moment of opportunity may never come again - and if we miss it, future generations will pay the price of our failure. The stars are aligning to give us one chance to pass real healthcare reform this year. Please give whatever you can to make it happen.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Bill Kristol thinks Obama Should Speak Up on Iran Elections. Should He?

In a strongly worded online column at the Washington Post, Conservative commentator William Kristol asks the White House to speak up in support of the protestors of the Iranian election.

After a boilerplate introduction in which (for the 37,000th time) Kristol insinuates that Obama is a Chamberlain style appeaser who would have let the Nazis conquer Manhattan before objecting, he goes on to write,

Some argue that the brave Iranians demonstrating for freedom and democracy would be better off if the American president somehow stayed out of the fight. Really?

But Barack Obama is president. His statement wouldn’t be crafted by those dreaded neocons who vulgarly thought all people would like a chance to govern themselves and deserved some modicum of U.S. support in that endeavor. It would be written by subtle liberal internationalists, who would get the pitch and tone just right. And the statement wouldn’t be delivered by the notorious George Bush (who did, however, weigh in usefully in somewhat similar situations in Ukraine and Lebanon). It would be delivered by the popular and credible speaker-to-the-Muslim-world, Barack Obama. Does anyone really think that a strong Obama statement of solidarity with the Iranian people, and a strong rebuke to those who steal elections and shoot demonstrators, wouldn’t help the dissidents in Iran?

OK, I'll bite.

YES. I do in fact, think that the protestors in Iran will be better off if President Obama sticks by his current position - which, by the way, is not silence but rather a steady position in support of the democratic process.

First of all, the glaring (practically blinding) error in Kristol's piece is his meditation on the "subtle liberal internationalists" who are expert in the region and who he imagines would be the ones to craft a White House statement. He appears either never to have considered or to have conveniently ignored the truth that these people are almost certainly the very ones advising Obama to shut the heck up. Precisely because they know that any appearance the protests are American led or supported would add instant credibility to Ahmadinezhad's rapidly unravelling support.

Obama did indeed speak up in a direct effort to inspire precisely this kind of constructive opposition in the Muslim world. If Kristol missed it, he might want to take another look at that Cairo speech.

Meanwhile, looking at it from the other side, it is unclear to me what could POSSIBLY be gained from any direct statement from the US administration at this point. Musavi's supporters are doing what needs to be done - they are taking to the street in direct opposition, by the tens and hundreds of thousands. Largely peacefully - in the face of intimidation and threats. They are getting the word out locally through every available communications method - in the face of increasingly futile efforts by the ruling regime to block the internet. Obama's careful statements in support of "debate" in Iran and calling for verification of the voting results have struck a useful balance - providing encouragement to the protestors, but depriving the Iranian leadership of any opportunity to claim American manipulation of the vote.

It may be hard for William Kristol to believe, but you know what?


The people of Iran are in the process of transforming their country. It may be that the outcome will be favourable to US interests. It may be that the outcome will be a setback for our interests. But either way, this is entirely an event about Iranians, by Iranians, for Iranians.

Obama could win some domestic political support by speaking out on this issue right now. But the brave people leading this movement deserve all the CONSTRUCTIVE support we can give them. And a carefully constructed silence actually is, right now, the very best way we can help.

Iranian Elections

The amazing stories coming out of Iran over the last few days have been a real education for me, I must say. First, I was inspired and cautiously optimistic to see real signs of a thriving Democracy in that much maligned country - with massive election rallies in support of a moderate reformist candidate.

Then on election night there was mass confusion as the Powers that Be in Iran declared a suspiciously overwhelming majority for the hard line incumbent. Rather then accepting this result, supporters of Musavi took to the streets, with hundreds of thousands or protestors - most peaceful, some violent - declaring their refusal to accept this result. Calls for an investigation into the dubious results are starting to be taken up even by some leading voices within the current adminisatration. So far the protestors show no sign of backing down, despite incidents in which riot police have fired into the crowds (killing some, injuring many).

In my earlier post, anticipating the election, I made an analogy between the Iranian campaigners and Obama for America campaigners like me. But I feel I should clarify: the Iranian student organisers who have been leading this campaign are currently on the run, staying one step ahead of arrest. When they go out to lead demonstrations and protests they are literally putting their lives on the line. Yesterday the Revolutionary Guard stormed the dormitories of Tehran University trying to track down the leaders of this movement.

My life and freedom was never for a second endangered by my work for Obama. It would be wrong to compare what was for me an unrelentingly positive and rewarding experience with these brave men and women who are staking everything they have on the possibility for democracy in their country.

May this situation be resolved quickly, peacefully and fairly.


As usual, is an indispensible source of info on polling and the plausibility of the official figures.

Juan Cole's blog has been doing a great job of bringing his wealth of experience in the Middle East to bear on the context of these elections.

And the always unmissable Andrew Sullivan has been flooding the zone with direct reports from within Iran and the best of the Tweets - this is very much a Twitter event, as Iranian dissidents have found their blogs shut down, but the administration has been unable to block access to twitter for vital info sharing.