President Obama Should Show He's Queer Like Us

One of the least glamorous ways to advance gay rights is to tell our stories. Again and again and again. Lavish fundraising balls are more fun, as are marching past the White House, meeting with senators, and blogging or writing op-eds (my own personal weakness). Introducing ourselves over and over again to the nation can be boring, can seem unnecessary if you live in an urban bubble where most people already get gay people, and is definitely an unfair burden: gays who seek basic equality must always be on their best behavior to try to earn rights that heterosexuals take for granted.

Gays and non-gays should share this burden, and my hope for President Obama's "big gay speech" tomorrow is that he has absorbed this lesson. Many of us have expressed frustration with the president for his failure to put real political capital behind campaign promises to fight for equal rights for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation. It's hard to imagine that the president has yet developed the courage to announce at this speech a major new policy initiative such as lifting the ban on openly gay troops by executive order, or a legislative effort such as beginning the work to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act. And his presence alone at a dinner of the largest gay rights organization in the world will not quiet the gay community. Nor should to it give license to the rest of the progressive community to stand idly by.

What President Obama can do at this speech is to model how a genuine straight ally can do his or her part to help end discrimination against gay people. Yes, he's the President, and so he ought to do much more. But until he does, he should be sharing our stories with the world, to help make it clear why equal rights matter--to gays and non-gays alike. Show the world, Mr. President, how we are just like you, and perhaps more important, how you are just like us: In what ways are we pretty normal, and in what ways are you kinda Queer?

Show how we're like you by telling the story of Michelle Patrick and Jennifer Putnam, mothers of Sam Portland, a high school football player in Portland, Maine, whose family is faced with the cruel and unnecessary loss of state marital recognition next month if Maine voters repeal a state law allowing his parents to be married. "We are an average family," says Sam, but society, his school, his doctors, and even some of his friends' parents view his family as "lesser" when the state says they don't count. Sam's family just wants to be treated like everybody else.

Show how we're like you by telling the story of Lt. Col. Edith Disler, a 25-year veteran and Air Force Academy professor who happens to be a lesbian. Disler was investigated and pulled from her classroom for discussing gays in the military, and she feared she might face a court-martial before her retirement. "I had to sneak out of a twenty-five year career in the Air Force, and throw my own retirement ceremony," says Disler, who also served our country as an arms control inspector and executive support officer to the Secretary of Defense. "It wasn't quite what my career was worthy of." Disler just wanted to teach her cadets to defend our country with the highest standards of integrity, but was foiled by an Air Force that sees homosexuality as permanently "other."

Many people--even those who support gay rights--don't seem to realize that literally tens of thousands of gay Americans are being wrenched from their partners or families because, absent marriage rights, they're not allowed to sponsor foreign nationals to reside with them in the U.S. So tell the story of Janet Dagley of New Jersey, whose son had to choose between his mother and his partner because his foreign-born partner can't live with him in New Jersey (while his sister was allowed to just because her partner is a man). "If you want to make a mother angry," writes Dagley, "give one of her children a right that you deny the other. And if you want to break a mother's heart, force one of her children to move far away from her in order to keep his household together." Dagley's son wants no more and no less than what his sister enjoys.

As a hate crimes bill finally makes its way into law, remind America of the tragic story of Matthew Shepard and all the untold youth who have suffered hate, abuse, brutality, and death just because of whom they love. And tell the story of Evangelical Christian, Brent Childers, a father who writes in Newsweek this week of his transformation from a hateful enabler of such violence to a gay rights advocate heading to this weekend's Washington march to show his "love for our LGBT brothers and sisters."

No speech by the president will be enough if he doesn't pair it with real action. But discrimination in America results in part from the nation's failure to understand that gays and lesbians are not alien beings but are, more or less, just like everybody else. After all, the rationale for banning openly gay troops is that straight people find them so alien that they could never trust them enough to share a foxhole. And a main rationale for banning gay marriage is that the love felt by a gay couple is too different from that felt by Barack and Michelle Obama to be called a marriage--a thoughtless echo of the sentiment and laws that once blocked marriages like that of President Obama's own parents.

The president has the chance on Saturday to help show the world that this ain't so. How are you like us, Mr. President? Your love for your family is just as important to you and just as prone to fragility; you've worked hard and paid your taxes and, like us, wanted to believe your government wouldn't slap a surcharge on your life just because of whom you love; and, despite what you've achieved, you've suffered discrimination and denigration because you're seen as different. Like it or not, you're Queer like us!

President Obama remains popular with his base, but he risks appearing to lack Clintonian empathy, for the jobless as well as for the GLBT community he has so far failed to lift up. He does not count gay people among his closest friends and aides, and if he fails to show that he truly gets gays, he will be damaged for the long haul. The question is not whether he says he favors our rights or even whether he favors them--those are both easy; the question is how much he'll risk to fight for us, and if he's not yet ready to go into battle, he'd better show, and not tell, us why we ought to trust his good intentions.

Gays and our allies must do our part, too. However inclined a politician might be to do the right thing, politics is about pressure, and we have the responsibility to continue to exert unbending pressure on our government and our fellow citizens to recognize that equal rights hurt no one but make all Americans better.