What Would a Nobel Laureate Tell the Gays?

President Obama will speak Saturday night at the Human Rights Campaign national dinner. The big question in gay-land is what will Obama say. I fear the answer is: Not much.
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President Obama will speak Saturday night at the Human Rights Campaign national dinner. His appearance at the biggest, and most important, gay political event of the year reflects the White House's recognition that many in the gay community are disappointed, if not feeling outright betrayed, by the President's lack of progress on various gay civil rights campaign promises.

The big question in gay-land is what will Obama say. I fear the answer is: Not much.

As someone who supported Barack Obama early on during the primaries, and raised nearly $50,000 for him during the campaign, it gives me no pleasure to burst the pink champagne bubbles of hope. But President Obama's track record on keeping his gay promises has been fairly abominable. Not only has he failed to move the ball forward on any of his top campaign promises to our community, but he has actually moved us backwards on issues such as DOMA, which he once called "abhorrent," but now defends in court (even though he doesn't have to). One step forward on minor issues and two steps back on major ones does not a fierce advocate make.

Yes, the recent Justice Department DOMA brief was "better" in that it no longer compared loving gay relationships to incest and pedophilia (yippee!). But our "fierce advocate," as President Obama once called himself, is still siding in court with the bigots, still defending DOMA as constitutional, and appears to be making no effort whatsoever to follow through on his promise to see the discriminatory law overturned, while now, remarkably, explaining to us that as the leader of the free world he's powerless to influence legislation. Of course, the notion that the American president is as powerless as the figurehead Queen of England is flat-out untrue. But even were it true, for argument's sake, it would beg the question of why Barack Obama made repeated promises that he knew he couldn't keep?

It is true that thanks to President Obama married gays in a handful of states can put their partners' names on their passports. That's nice. And some gay partners of some gay federal employees are now guaranteed some less-important federal benefits that they already had access to even under George Bush's tutelage. And the President did hold a cocktail party in June for the "good gays" who refused to sharply criticize him for comparing our marriages to incest and pedophilia.

And if the year were still 1992, this would be major progress.

But it's 2009. Gay and lesbian Americans are no longer a closeted, self-loathing diaspora satisfied with the occasional crumb of respectability carelessly thrown our way in exchange for our knee-jerk vote for one political party. We've moved beyond the Pride Proclamation equivalent of National Ice Cream Day.

We want to be able to hold a job without fear of being fired. We want to be able to marry the loves of our lives. We want to be treated like human beings rather than political pariahs. And our President promised to help us on all of these fronts, by repealing DADT and DOMA, and pushing ENDA. But now, we're to believe it's crazy talk to simply expect our President to keep his promises. The President has a lot on his plate, we're being told, what with health care reform and all those wars. No time to free the gays. Come back next election when running the country becomes easier.

But it's never going to be easier. There are people who don't like us, and they're always going to yell and scream if politicians or the courts try to give us our God-given rights. It's part and parcel of being a discriminated-against minority. And we shouldn't have to constantly remind this particular president of how prejudice works.

And now, to add insult to the injury, we face the subtle bigotry of "incrementalism." The White House has found a new buzzword - a rhetorical silver bullet to get the President off the hook for yet another forgotten promise. It's a common tactic of this particular White House. For example, did that promise to get DADT repealed suddenly become more trouble than it's worth? No problem. Simply change your commitment from "repealing" DADT to now only promising to "change" it in an incremental way. That way, you can take a small Solomon-esque step towards putting a friendlier face on the daily discharge of two gay service members under this administration, while still keeping the main policy in place and hopefully avoiding the pesky controversy that often comes with principle.

In three stories in the past twenty-four hours we've seen the appearance of the "incrementalism" buzzword (here and here), and one story reports that President Obama is going to explain to our community on Saturday night how necessary incrementalism is to achieving our rights.

Don't believe it. It's a smoke screen. There has been no incremental movement whatsoever by this administration towards repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, repealing DOMA, or passing ENDA. Again, I take you back to the gay passports. It's a nice gesture, don't get me wrong. But how is putting our partners' names on passports in a handful of states, holding a cocktail party for some gay leaders while banning others, issuing a Pride Proclamation, and nominating a gay ambassador to an island when we've had gay ambassadorial nominees for 12 years already - how does any of this even incrementally advance the President's major commitments on DADT, DOMA, ENDA, the HIV travel ban, and so much more?

It doesn't. They're nice small steps worthy of a President, and a civil rights community, living in the last century. They are unworthy gestures to a core Democratic constituency that was made specific, repeated promises in exchange for its votes, promises that are now being rewritten to ease the political pain of true leadership.

President Obama's long litany of small steps seems intended to give the shrinking number of administration apologists a long list of quasi, and even pseudo, gay accomplishments with which to argue that the real promises, the most important and substantive promises, can be put off until another day, or decade, that will likely never arrive.

And to those who say "we're only ten months into his term, give him a chance," that's not how effective legislating works. You can't just wake up one day, a year or two from now, and decide that it's suddenly a good day to lift the ban or repeal DOMA. It takes a long time, and an aggressive public relations/media, grassroots, and lobbying strategy, to influence legislation. If the White House is sincere in its desire to help us on DADT, DOMA and ENDA, then they need to enunciate, start enacting, and working with all of us on a real comprehensive strategy for victory, now. They simply are not.

President Obama just won the Nobel Prize. Ostensibly because the world still holds hope that our President will keep his promises and truly try to change the way Washington works. Men worthy of the honor - a Desmond Tutu, or a Lech Walesa - did not spend their time trying to semantically wriggle out of their commitments to free their countrymen.

Barack Obama has a chance to be truly noble tomorrow night. All he has to do is keep his promises.

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