Barack Obama played the consummate host yesterday, welcoming GLBTs to “their” White House. For a dozen or so minutes he delivered prepared remarks to 200 invited guests, reiterating some of the same gay rights promises he made during his campaign — only now he wasn’t courting the gay vote, but rather reacting to harsh criticism and demands for action that have tarnished his first months in office. The president is deeply aware of how the temperature of the gay community has turned against him, which explains why his staff pulled together the reception — which was technically a Stonewall 40th anniversary celebration — in just a week’s time. But just because Michelle stood by him in a dress any gay can appreciate does not mean he’s smoothed everything over.
In order to do that, he’ll need to make good on his promises. This much we know.
Obama’s gay rights defenders point to a timeline: In office for fewer than five months, there’s no way any president could enact all the equality legislation we want from him. Just wait a little longer, they say, and he’ll get the job done. Yesterday, the president made that same case for himself. On Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Obama said: “I’m confident, we’ll look back at this transition and ask why it generated such angst, but as Commander-in-Chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term.”
But for a president so self-aware and so in tune with messaging and the media, he remains out of touch with our most basic demands — one of which derives from his horrible defense of the Defense of Marriage Act (i.e. we’d like him to apologize).
Our singular demand remains this: Full equality under the law in all aspects of life. But even the most cynical will have to admit a finger snap cannot accomplish all that in this bureaucratic democracy. So until he “works with Congress” to repeal DOMA and DADT, enact ENDA and the Matthew Shepard Act, we’d like what’s possible: Stop-gap measures to prevent gay soldiers from being discharged and a more reasoned approach to “defending” current laws on the books.
The president did hand us one of our demands: more transparency. The great orator has been painfully silent on our rights since taking office. Only when pressed, or as a PR maneuver, has he spoke to us directly about his plans to bring about this “change” he’s spoken so much about. If Obama truly believes he cannot grant us our civil rights overnight, the least he could do is lay out his plans for how he’ll get things done. Yesterday, he moved in that direction.
But the president remains attached to — comfortable with? — a timeline that could span more than three years to get all this done. By the end of his first term to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? We’re closing in on 300 gay soldiers lost to the policy already; how many more must go before the Pentagon’s cronies come down on the side of right?
Lost in the conversation — amidst worthy debates about DADT, DOMA, and ENDA — is that we still have a president who does not believe in marriage equality. He thinks civil unions are good enough. Maybe he just campaigned on that notion to win votes, but until he says otherwise, we must take him at his word. And while he says he’s committed to repealing DOMA, which prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriage, he thus leaves our ability to wed the ones we love in the hands of the states. This was not good enough for interracial marriage. It is not good enough for same-sex marriage, either. Arguments based in religious belief, or the sanctity of a word, never were adequate; they still are not.
A man who proclaims himself a “fierce advocate” for our rights and equality does not get to give himself that title when he refuses to go all the way.
Like many gay rights activists, Obama speaks much about the importance of convincing more than our legislators that gays deserve equal rights — but that our neighbors need talking too as well. It is they who need their attitudes changed. Yesterday the president told us, “For if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that there are good and decent people in this country who don’t yet fully embrace their gay brothers and sisters — not yet.”
Mr. Obama lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Please continue knocking on his door.