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.


Quote of the day

March 25, 2009 at 7:37 am | Posted in Gay Rights | Leave a comment

I’ve heard the argument that this debate isn’t just about sexuality; that what we’re talking about now is the need for children to be brought up with certain gender roles filled. I’ve been told that a child needs a mother and a father to be okay, to be happy, to be educated and to be brought up right. I completely disagree, and on my own behalf, I know that if I were to have a child, I would do my best to make him or her a positive influence on the community. I would pack them a lunch, and always put a cookie or a brownie in to brighten their day. I would drop them off at soccer practice, or choir, or dance, or anything they wanted to do. I would sing them to sleep, I would push them on the swings, and when they were little, I would let them win races by no more than a centimeter. I would raise them the exact same way my amazing parents raised me. I would raise them to be no one but themselves, and I would raise them to respect the same in others.

James Neiley, 17 years old, testifying in favour of gay marriage in the state of Vermont.

[Video here]

Mehdi Kazemi granted asylum

May 20, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Posted in Asylum, Gay Rights | 1 Comment
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Some of my more ‘veteran readers’ (i.e. the 6 people who knew I was keeping this blog), might remember an earlier post about Mehdi Kazemi, the 19-year-old Iranian teenager who sought asylum in Britain and feared he would be killed if returned to Iran (not without justification, either – his own boyfriend was killed for being gay).

Kazemi’s initial application was refused, prompting him to try the Netherlands, but when a Dutch court (correctly) decided it should be our decision in the first place, his plight became desperate, prompting the Lib Dems’  Simon Hughes and various members of the House of Lords to appeal to the Home Office to show some rarely-seen humanity.

Anyway, his case was reconsidered and today the young man heard he has been granted asylum in Britain:

The home secretary agreed to reconsider Mr Kazemi’s case in March, after his first asylum bid failed.

The UK Border Agency now says it will allow him asylum after reviewing his case.

A spokesman said: “The UK Border Agency considers each case on its individual merits and will continue to provide refuge for those asylum seekers with a genuine need for protection.

“We keep cases under review where circumstances have changed and it has been decided that Mr Kazemi should be granted leave to remain in the UK based on the particular facts of this case.”

Here’s hoping he finds a peace & freedom he was deprived of back home.

A stay of execution

March 13, 2008 at 9:33 pm | Posted in Asylum, British Politics, Gay Rights, New Labour | 3 Comments
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Quite literally. That’s all it amounts to for the moment, but at least there’s hope. From the BBC:

The home secretary is to review the case of Iranian homosexual teenager Mehdi Kazemi, who has said he will be executed if forced to return to Iran. The UK rejected his first asylum plea, but Jacqui Smith has now granted him a temporary reprieve from deportation while she reconsiders his case.


Ms Smith said: “Following representations made on behalf of Mehdi Kazemi, and in the light of new circumstances since the original decision was made, I have decided that Mr Kazemi’s case should be reconsidered on his return to the UK from the Netherlands.”

On inheritance tax, on non-domiciles, on welfare, this is a government that’s been shown to buckle under pressure and remake itself in the image of those doing the pressurising. So let’s keep that pressure up. On an earlier post, I linked to Paul Canning’s guidance for how you should make your voice heard. Since Mr Kazemi’s asylum status is still far from guaranteed, keeping his case in the minds of ministers is still a great imperative.

The reason given by the Home Office when they refused Kazemi’s first asylum plea was that so long as you’re discreet about your homosexuality, you won’t be executed. I’ll leave this subject with the words from the unofficial Save Mahdi Kazemi website:

“To say that homosexuals are safe as long as they are discreet and live their lives in private, is to say that Ann Frank was safe from the Nazis in WWII as long as she hid in her attic.”

“United Kingdom is a danger for all refugees”

March 12, 2008 at 1:07 pm | Posted in Asylum, Gay Rights, New Labour | 7 Comments
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The shocking, shameful and entirely accurate assessment of Britain’s treatment of refugees. From the Independent:

Mehdi Kazemi, 19, who sought sanctuary in Britain in 2005 when he discovered that his partner had been hanged in Tehran for engaging in homosexual acts, is expected to be returned to Iran in the next few weeks. Mr Kazemi fled to Holland from Britain last year after the Home Office rejected his claim for asylum. But yesterday, a Dutch court ruled that he should be sent back to Britain after refusing to consider his claim for asylum.


Mr Kazemi arrived in London as a student in 2004, after which his boyfriend was arrested by Iranian police, charged with sodomy and hanged. In a telephone conversation with his father in Tehran, Mr Kazemi was told that, before the execution in April 2006, his boyfriend had been questioned about sexual relations he had with other men and under interrogation had named Mr Kazemi as his partner.

Fearing for his life if he returned to Iran, Mr Kazemi claimed asylum in Britain. But in 2007 his case was refused. Terror-stricken at the prospect of being sent home, the young Iranian made a desperate attempt to evade deportation and fled to Holland.

Apparently the Dutch are not quite as culpable of sending someone to their death as we are; the BBC reports that “under the EU’s 2003 Dublin Regulation, the state the applicant first enters is responsible for processing their application.” So our government should’ve made the right decision in the first place.

Lib Dem Simon Hughes is apparently taking Kazemi’s case further, and there is still time for Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to intervene and save him from certain death. For those who want to pressure their MPs into shaming her to do the right thing, Paul Canning has the details:

Please help by doing any of the following today:

  • PLEASE contact your MP today. The media coverage is no guarantee that Jacqui Smith will not send him back.

You can also use the following contact points:

There’s also an online petition here, and (via) a planned demo:

On Saturday March 22nd at 2pm Middle East Workers’ Solidarity will be staging a protest opposite Downing Street in defence of Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian asylum seeker who the British government plans to send back to Iran on the grounds that if gay Iranians are “discreet about their sexuality”, they will not get in trouble.

In fact, Mehdi Kazemi’s boyfriend in Iran has already been executed for being gay, and the regime knows about Mehdi Kazemi and will likely kill him if he returns. We are demonstrating to demand that he should not be sent to his death in Iran, and that he should be allowed to stay in Britain if he so chooses.”

Other bloggers who’ve posted on the subject (and who’ll doubtless offer more comment & background on the case, not to mention a more reliable update service) are as follows:

Since there are bound to be many more that I’ve missed (this post has been constructed in a bit of a lunch hour rush), there’s always a Google Blogsearch.

Since much of yesterday seemed to revolve around Lord Goldsmith’s plans for making us all prouder, more patriotic Brits, I think Alex Parsons deserves the last word:

What would make me proud to be British? Making it through a whole week without being disgusted by my government would be a step in the right direction.

Update: From the comments:

1 paul canning on March 12, 2008 said: Edit Link

Hia website has now been set up to support Madhi’s case


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