In the past few months, activists for gay and lesbian causes have learned to expect very little from Washington and instead look for successes at the local level. With gay marriage now, or soon to be, a reality in Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine, things are looking up for the LGBT movement after the depressing passage of Proposition 8 in California, which eliminated gay marriage after it had been allowed for six months. Despite these great successes, those concerned with the rights of gays and lesbians ought to be upset, because the Obama administration has moved painfully slowly.
Although few expect gay marriage to be recognized or authorized at the federal level any time soon, many thought that banning discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation could happen federally. Twenty states have passed laws that expand employment discrimination protections to cover sexual orientation. But despite an employment discrimination bill passing the House in 2007, the federal government still hasn’t included sexual orientation along with race, gender, age or national origin as categories that are protected against discrimination. The fate of employment discrimination protection is just a small example of how Congress and the White House have generally been slow to move or downright hostile toward the demands of gay rights activists and their supporters.
While no one expects movement on these issues when Republicans are in office, more is generally expected of Democrats. That’s because the overwhelming majority of gay and lesbian voters vote for Democrats, and gays and lesbians have ascended to fairlyloftypositions in the Democratic apparatus. Bill Clinton famously pledged to revise the military’s ban on homosexual soldiers and was the first president to win with substantial open gay support. But he also turned out to be the movement’s biggest disappointment. Despite having prominent gay supporters and acquaintances, Clinton was responsible for two of the biggest setbacks at the federal level for gay rights.
The first was his squirrely compromise on gays in the military. His Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, authored by the late Charlie Moskos, which banned open disclosure of a soldier’s homosexuality as well as inquiry by superiors into a soldier’s sexuality, has been infamously ineffective at protecting the privacy of gay soldiers – in fact, an Arabic linguist has recently been expelled under the policy, making him the first casualty of this misguided policy since Obama took office.
The second capitulation of gay rights was the Defense of Marriage Act, which exempted states from recognizing same-sex marriage performed in other states and banned the federal government from recognizing gay marriage. Traditionally, marriage had been a province of the states, and other states (as well as the federal government) tended to recognize marriages performed elsewhere. On a practical level, this meant that some 1,138 benefits granted to married couples at the federal level are denied to same sex couples, even if they are legally married or are in a civil union in their home state. And even if it weren’t constitutionally dubious, it represented a sop to regressive forces in response to (at the time) a purely hypothetical threat. For the second time, Clinton sold out his gay supporters for the sake of looking like a centrist.
Obama, during his campaign, promised to be different. He pledged to support the overturning of DADT, the repeal of DOMA and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. So, after more than 100 days of his term, what’s happened? Nothing. Sure, there’s been speculation about him picking a lesbian for the supreme Court, but on the signature gay civil rights issue of his campaign, there has been no movement.
Now, perhaps one shouldn’t get too agitated over this. Barely 1/15th of his term has passed and Obama has a lot of other stuff on his plate. But the explanations proffered by members of the administration as well as important Democrats in Congress indicate that we won’t be seeing any efforts on the gay front for a while.
Let’s look first at Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. There’s basically a consensus that the policy is pointless when it comes to maintaining cohesion in the military, not to mention the fact that it’s blatantly discriminatory. Even before it was discovered that Arabic linguists were being discharged under DADT, the military and defense communities started realizing what a big mistake they had made. Two of the legislation’s biggest supporters, Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, and Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when DADT was passed, haveboth urged revisiting the law, while many retired officers support its outright repeal.
But what has the Obama administration done? First, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “I think the president and I feel like we’ve got a lot on our plates right now… Let’s push that one down the road a little bit.” It then came out that, by the beginning of April, Gates and Obama had had only one conversation on DADT. Although it’s true that Obama has a lot to worry about regarding the military, it’s likely that he’ll have a lot on his plate for the entirety of his first term, so there will always be an excuse not to push on DADT right now. But if right now lasts for eight years, then we’ll be stuck with this horrible policy. So much for the “fierce urgency of now.”
But what about federal benefits for same-sex couples? Surely the administration and Congress could show some urgency on this basic issue of fairness. Once again, however, now just isn’t the time. Nancy Pelosi, who is generally perceived as being very gay friendly, plainly stated when asked about pushing through an anti-discrimination bill, “Right now our agenda is jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.” And while it’s true that Congress has a lot of work to do in supporting Obama’s economic agenda, it’s not like eventually they’ll have nothing left to do and will be able to get around to protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
And just to put the hypocrisy and disappointment in stark perspective, the White House altered language on its Web site that turned what had previously been calls for repeals of DADT and DOMA to just “change” to DADT and DOMA. Even though the original commitment for the repeal of DADT was restored after activists complained, there was perhaps no better signal of how the Obama administration has become unwilling to take political heat over implementing his campaign promises.
Gay rights are one of those issues that should make you sad about politics. Even when the party in power of the White House and Congress has made a public stand on expanding rights and protections for gays and lesbians, and even when they personally believe that it’s the right thing to do, they still find an excuse to procrastinate and prevaricate on their commitment to basic fairness and equality. And if we don’t call them out on it, they’ll continue to do so.