How Soon Is Now? – Obama & Gay Rights

July 18, 2009 at 8:03 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, Gay Rights, U.S. Politics | 5 Comments

A few days ago, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the NAACP , Barack Obama stood before a room packed with African American supporters and reflected on how far the civil rights movement – and the country as a whole – had come in such a short century:

From the beginning, these founders understood how change would come — just as King and all the civil rights giants did later. They understood that unjust laws needed to be overturned; that legislation needed to be passed; and that Presidents needed to be pressured into action. They knew that the stain of slavery and the sin of segregation had to be lifted in the courtroom, and in the legislature, and in the hearts and the minds of Americans. They also knew that here, in America, change would have to come from the people.

For anyone who has followed the President’s public rhetoric over the past few years, all of this will sound very familiar. His theory of change, as enunciated in town halls and stadiums, campaign stumps and churches, is one of communities banding together, organising and, with one voice, demanding change from their elected officials. It’s a theory which envisages people as the drivers of change, and reduces government to the role of facilitator, merely acceding to the clamour of its citizens. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a vision of change which is compelling and often true – but, as recent events have shown, not without its flaws.

A little later in the speech, the President reminded his audience that the NAACP’s mission to overcome prejudice was far from over. Whilst America had taken the momentous step of electing a black President, the pain of discrimination was still felt by African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and by “our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.” Very true, but as he spoke those words, Obama must’ve known that he is now complicit in the kind of discrimation he’d spent much of his life working against.

As the head of a federal government which bans gays from serving in the military and denies them the right to marry, it is now Barack Obama who is involved in denying LBGT people the same rights as their heterosexual friends and upholding – however reluctantly – the last form of state-sanctioned discrimination. Whilst the President promised to repeal both injustices during the campaign, gay rights activists have been frustrated by the lack of legislative action and concerned that the White House does not consider gay equality to be any sort of priority.

In fact, you could argue that his administration has done more to extend discrimination against homosexuals than he’s done to end it. When the Defense of Marriage Act was challenged in the courts, the Obama Justice Department filed a brief not only defending the legislation, but invoking incest and the marrying of children in doing so. On top of this, officers are still discharged from the military for the ‘crime’ of being gay: in May, an Arab translator was dismissed after his sexuality was revealed, depriving the country of an able linguist at a time when there aren’t enough people who can do that job. With these things in mind, even some of Obama’s strongest supporters have been questioning his commitment and wondering whether the LBGT community has been taken for a ride yet again.

In this context of growing dismay, journalist Rex Wockner interviewed Steve Hildebrand – Obama’s deputy campaign director, who has also advised the President on gay issues and recently met him to convey the concerns of activists. Hildebrand said that Obama was unhappy with the way the defense of DOMA was handled and restated his commitment to fulfilling all the promises he made on the campaign. He expressed confidence that the President would stay true to his word, but was being painstakingly methodical in trying to bring it about:

He has to move the minds of the public, he has to move the minds of Congress and he has to move the minds of military leaders. And once that happens, and the ducks are in a row, I believe he can successfully move forward for repeal, something that he feels very strongly about and something that he spoke very passionately about.

So what might these events reveal about the theory of change which Barack Obama espoused from the first day of his campaign for president? Well, on the one hand, the gay rights movement is an example of a group which has already banded together, already organised, already contributed a great deal to American political life, and yet still can’t get their few simple wishes granted – even under the most liberal president of modern times. Does that not reveal the limits – maybe even the futility – of Obama’s vision of grassroots political campaigning?

In some ways, perhaps, but I think that if you turn your gaze away from Washington, you’d find a much healthier picture. For one, take a look at the states already recognising same sex marriage or civil unions. In each state where this was achieved, there needed to be grassroots support, organisation, campaigning and commitment, and that’s only possible when ordinary people give up their time to help others. Even in places where activists have come up short, such as Prop 8 in California, the arguments for marriage equality have now been embedded within that state’s political rhetoric, and the passing of time only makes it likelier that they’ll win in the end.

On top of this, there should be some solace or inspiration to be found in the extraordinary dedication & bravery shown by people from a bygone era. Even a superficial reading of American political history will tell you that it wasn’t enough to simply rid racial discrimination from the statute books; it had to be ended in the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. Likewise, whilst the President can and should repeal legislation aimed at discriminating against gays, that alone won’t end discrimination in the minds of their fellow citizens. The only way you can do that is by waging a permanent campaign, by making the political seem personal and by slowly helping shape communities into the change you want to see.

None of which should let President Obama off the hook. When he told his supporters that their ‘moment is now‘, his words spoke not just of the need for change or the opportunity for change, but the necessity and urgency of change. For that reason, all those who shared the big dreams he sold on that memorable campaign should stay restless, impatient, loud and determined to help him achieve what he promised. The gay community, which has already waited far too long for that elusive change to arrive, must not be let down again.



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  1. Excellent article! Civil rights and ending discrimination never comes from people sitting idly by. It comes by courage, speaking out, demanding the same rights as all other Americans including serving honorably in the military and the right to love. We fight to the end, for those gone before us and those after.

    • Hi, thanks for the kind words, and your own comment was very well put.

  2. I agree with you Neil, but didn’t Obama explicitly state his opposition to gay marriage in the election campaign? Assuming he was telling the truth, and I have no reason not to, supporters of gay rights may need to persuade the President as well as the country at large.

    • Yes, good point Chris. His position was the more ‘nuanced’ belief in civil unions rather than marriage, but that it’s a matter states to decide, rather than Washington. I think he’s wrong on civil unions vs ‘proper ‘ marriage, but it’s not something which troubles me too much because there aren’t any policy consequences to it. The federal government shouldn’t be discriminating against a considerable portion of its population and shouldn’t be dictating what marriage is, so the military ban should be lifted and DOMA should be repealed. Obama has promised to do those things, and providing he does so, I’m not sure how important it is where he personally stands on marriage/civil unions.

  3. I am a bit impatient with Obama because I think he is an atheist, a marriage equality supporter & sane on drugs, but for political reasons is not in a position to say as much.

    I appreciate the Rude Pundit’s statements on the matter of Obama’s gradualism: (wonderful imagery there).

    That is an excellent blog in my view- worth reading certainly. My instincts are now telling me to stick with Obama.

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