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Ranking the Issues: Gay Rights in an Economic Crisis

Because gay civil rights struggles affect fewer individuals, it's hard to justify putting them at the top of the list. The alternative is to reject the ranked priorities political model altogether.
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On Friday, the Washington Times reported that Barack Obama will be waiting until 2010 to push for the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Obama staffers say the delay is necessary to allow for consensus building.

The move raises a number of questions and concerns. At first brush it seems like smart politics: avoid a Clintonesque botch and give yourself some time to get support before taking on the gay issues. In fact, as a person as well as a lesbian, I find myself worrying more about health care and the economy than the ability of LGBT people to serve openly in the military.

But just how should we be ranking identity politics in this grab bag moment of crisis and transition?

The classic approach to politics is to rank priorities and measure the finite bowl of political capital. If Obama pushes hard on a green new deal, he likely won't have much left for universal health care. If he backs off of serious economic regulation, then he might get more support for social programs from Republicans.

Because gay civil rights struggles affect fewer individuals and relate to less quantifiable harms, it's hard to justify putting them at the top of the list.

The alternative is to reject the ranked priorities political model altogether.

There is little evidence that sway and support is finite in the American political system. Political capital relates to the actions of the leader, yes, but can be infinitely large or non-existent at any point in time. In some ways, the more you get done, the more the bowl of capital swells.

Ranking America's problems to conserve political influence is a narrow minded approach to solving this crisis. Putting banks at the top of the list avoids the plight of large employers (like car companies - as much as we love to hate their executives). Sending health care and other social programs to second or third place, leaves those immediately affected by the crisis with nothing to fall back on.

Finally, ignoring the disenfranchisement of a segment of the population breeds discontent, encourages protest, boycotts (a definite harm in this economy) and violence. It divides families (especially those who are still unable to sponsor their partner into the United States), imposes higher tax burdens on gay couples, denies benefits to gay spouses in many employment situations and polarizes social conservatives and social liberals in a time when consensus is essential.

The first years of the Obama presidency cannot be about determining who and what matters and who and what doesn't. There should be no ranking of political promises and political objectives. As President of the United States, we expect Obama to be able to multitask. As LGBT people, we should not stop fighting for the end of DADT, but also the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the implementation of hate crime legislation that recognizes LGBT victims.

Identity politics do not need to fall to the back burner just because times are tough. Working towards full LGBT rights should, and hopefully will, remain a priority for all of us.