Back to Work: All Eyes on Full LGBT Equality

We all know that Election Day, including the reelection of President Obama, was historic for LGBT Americans. Now we need to translate those results into tangible, concrete change.
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We all know that Election Day, including the reelection of President Obama, was historic for LGBT Americans. Now we need to translate those results into tangible, concrete change.

Last week a Washington Post headline proclaimed, "Gay donors now pressing for top spots for LGBTs in Obama administration." Then, on Sunday, Maureen Dowd reported that gay advocates specifically want "to see an openly gay cabinet secretary and an openly gay ambassador to a G-20 nation." If traditional media and elected officials are getting the message that this is at the top of our equality agenda, to the exclusion of more meaningful gains, that's a problem. Sure, an openly LGBT cabinet secretary or high-level ambassador would be a symbolic milestone, but how does that translate into real equality for LGBT Americans outside D.C.?

An LGBT cabinet official was supposedly a line in the sand four years ago. Following the November 2008 Obama transition team meetings, which all the major LGBT organizations attended, Chuck Wolfe from Victory Fund was quoted as saying, "Anything less than a cabinet-level appointment would demonstrate that they did not hear us." When we didn't get one, the groups simply stopped talking about it.

Elections are a means to an end, and our end goal is full equality for all LGBT Americans. Though we had fantastic wins on marriage in four states, last week's results didn't get us even close to full equality. If you woke up in any of the 29 states without full nondiscrimination protections for LGBT employees, or in any of the 41 states that don't have marriage equality, or, worse, in any of the 30 states that have enshrined this bigotry into their constitutions, then you surely understand that firsthand.

Judging from successful civil rights movements that came before us, our next steps will take dogged determination. The good news is that political momentum and the American people are on our side.

We need to redouble efforts and raise the bar on expectations, especially on the federal level. There are valuable lessons from Obama's first four years to guide us. Here's our quick take on lessons learned, followed by specific requests that we should be prioritizing:

  • Lesson 1: Chicken Littles who proclaimed that the sky would fall if the president supported marriage equality were wrong. It helped him. Many argued that it would be a mistake for the president to "evolve" in his position on marriage before the election. They parroted "conventional wisdom" that support for LGBT issues (and not just marriage equality) was risky. Polling showed otherwise. Instead of the sky falling, the president's decision to support marriage equality was met with a burst of fundraising support and increased enthusiasm for his reelection. Doing the right thing mattered and helped the president win reelection. We want to be clear: The lesson here is not about anyone being right or wrong; it's about learning that never again should we stop -- or fear -- fighting for equality because of unsubstantiated claims of risk.
  • Lesson 2: We need to hold accountable our friends in power, not just challenge our enemies. Over the past four years President Obama wanted to live up to his promise to be our "fierce advocate," but to get him to act, we needed to push, prod and corner him every step of the way -- as he told us to do. On issue after issue the Obama administration responded when pushed. It didn't hurt or risk our progress. It helped immensely.
  • Lesson 3: We played an aggressive outside game -- through blogs, social media and direct action -- to complement the well-established, access-centric inside game. This changed the dynamic. The outsiders refused to play by the D.C. rules. They refused to accept excuses. They understood that you have to pick a fight in order to win a fight instead of caving even before trying. That's why many people in the progressive movement look to the LGBT community as a model for success. Those on the inside, or in power, have lost their monopoly and don't get to decide what's "reasonable" or "smart." They can waste time complaining about the "unreasonable" masses constantly demanding equality, because every day we're unequal is beyond unreasonable.

So what should we be asking for on a federal level right now? We need to set very clear, public goals and benchmarks and demand progress and immediate action. This time we should not listen to anyone who tells us to wait. Others have made recommendations, and we wanted to add ours to the growing list. This is not an exhaustive or definitive list, so add your priorities to the list and start advocating. Here's our list:

  1. By the end of this year, President Obama needs to sign the executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This executive order has been awaiting his signature for over two years now. He could do it this week, and it would be a historic first step toward federal employment protections. We can no longer wait for employment protections that the president promised us and should have put into place on his first day on the job four years ago.
  2. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) needs to make good on his promise to bring up an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) for a vote early in 2013. We deserve a Senate vote on ENDA, having not seen concrete progress since Democrats took control over six years ago. We want a floor vote. If Republicans want to filibuster it, let them. We want them on record. The American people are with us. When we push the GOP to show their bigotry, they lose.
  3. Same-sex couples should not be forgotten or excluded when immigration reform finally gets debated and passed. And don't tell us that you will come back later for us, or that we need to be in a separate bill that can be appended later. We have been there and done that.
  4. The president should finish the job and put into place a real and durable LGBT nondiscrimination policy for the military. This policy was bargained away during the battle over the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT). Putting one in place would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender servicemembers and wouldn't need congressional approval.
  5. In 2008 the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and other groups made lists of over 100 high-priority administrative changes that they'd like to see. We need to make those requests transparent and get them done. These federal policy recommendations do not require congressional approval and would concretely affect the lives of LGBT Americans, but many have stalled. It has been difficult to judge the process on the recommendations because HRC and NGLTF hid their lists after activists started inquiring about progress. (Here are cached versions of NGLTF's and HRC's recommendations.) One more note: For all those who claim that these changes are not durable, they are.
  6. Our allies in Congress should introduce a comprehensive LGBT equality bill. For years this has been discussed. It's time to do it. Former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) introduced the first comprehensive gay rights bill in the 1970s, and the "reasonable" people argued that we needed to break up the different elements (housing, public accommodations and employment protections) if we wanted any chance of passing them. You see how reasonable that was and how well that worked out, right?
  7. The president needs to keep his foot on the gas to end the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), through the courts and/or legislatively. Within the next few weeks the Supreme Court will decide whether it will hear one or more of the various DOMA cases. The president already instructed the Department of Justice to stop defending DOMA in federal courts. We need to be prepared for every possible outcome, and will need continued leadership from the president in his bully pulpit.
  8. [Fill in the blank.] We're sure we've missed many other priorities. There were over 20 equality-related bills that languished in Congress last session, so there are many opportunities.

Our end goal is full equality. We need to do what it takes to get there. It's not always pretty, but we think it's worth it, and progress will engender enthusiasm as we approach the midterms.

Though victory is sweet, we can't let it be fleeting.

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