Today, the hopes of the world will be conferred on Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America. But what about the hopes of gays and lesbians?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote nearly 200 years ago: “The deepest, the only theme of human history, compared to which all others are of subordinate importance, is the conflict of skepticism with faith”. Two days ago, in an inaugural invocation that was never broadcast, openly-gay Bishop Gene Robinson sounded a similar theme by asking God to “bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.”
For gay and lesbian Americans, the presidency of Barack Obama inspires both faith and skepticism. At long last, we have a president who includes the phrase “gays and lesbians” in his rhetoric about freedom and equality, and yet, despite promises that he will work for our equal rights, his choice of Rick Warren to officiate his inauguration fills us with deep skepticism. Is the new president serious about including the gay community or is he, as his predecessor might say, “All hat, no cattle”?
The moment not only inspires faith and skepticism in Obama, but in ourselves. Our emotions range from fury to consolation and, despite his promises to bring us all together, Obama is already a divisive figure. Some say that we must be quiet and give the new president a chance to do good before judging him. Others say that’s hogwash: when it comes to civil rights, you don’t sit quietly at the back of the bus in hopes that your turn will come.
Let’s put this simply: both views are correct. Barack Obama will not give gays and lesbians their civil rights anymore than Lyndon Baines Johnson gave blacks their civil rights when he signed Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act. Even if (and with faith, we hope), President Obama signs away Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, it’ll be the final step in a struggle we started and fought for.
Like all Americans, our hopes and aspirations are bound up in this new president. He is “change” and “hope” incarnate, but that’s a testament to his image-making skills, nothing more. The expectation that he will fully redress the injustices done to gays and lesbians in this country isn’t just unrealistic, it’s naive. He’s a politician– a skillful, intelligent and open-minded one — but the only people who should pin all their hopes on him are the ones who enjoy seeing their dreams dashed.
Now that we’ve thrown cold water on the idea that Barack Obama is your new bicycle, here’s why the new president is the best thing to ever happen to the gay and lesbian community. It’s not the occasional tip of the hat to the LGBT community that matters, nor is it his various campaign promises to make America a more fair and equitable place for us, it’s his message. Ronald Reagan told us that government was the problem, Bill Clinton promised a government that “would feel your pain,” but Barack Obama’s government says, “Take over the government.”
He is the Community-Organizer-in-Chief and it’s clear from the YouTube videos that answer citizen’s questions and websites that enable Americans to give their time and energy back to their communities that the radical reshaping of the nation that Obama seeks is not based on policy, but process. His viewpoint is that it’s far more effective to give Americans the tools to transform their civic spaces, their economy and themselves, than it is for him to do it alone. It’s the political corollary to the Hippocratic Oath: “Nation, heal thyself!”
Barack Obama’s America exhorts its citizens to take the reins of government for themselves. Granted, in practice, this is easier said than done, but what does it mean specifically for gays and lesbians?
For one, it says we must not wait for Barack Obama. The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights movement should not wait for any one, even the president. It will be far easier for the president to pass sweeping civil rights reform in an environment filled with politically active gays and lesbians fighting for their rights through protests, boycotts and political actions.
We must do the heavy lifting for our rights and, let’s face it: before Proposition 8 passed, many of us were complacent.
We were complacent not just in the struggle for equality, but in the care of our community. In trying to assimilate, too many of us have ignored the members of our community who stood at the periphery. HIV infections are on the rise among young gay men. Transgender women are murdered and we sit silently because their lives, made desperate by discrimination, do not reflect the positive sunny image we want the wider world to see. Minority communities, the very communities where discrimination is often most rampant, are supported by only a small, dedicated, handful of people.
Is it too much to ask of ourselves that we look out for each other? That we recognize the diverse differences that separate us along lines of color, wealth and political persuasion? Is it too much to ask that wealthy donors not only donate to the important causes of marriage equality, but also to the gay and lesbian centers that provide relief for homeless gay teens? Can we make a full-throated demand for equality when we find ourselves unable to donate an hour a week to serving meals to home bound HIV patients?
Many gays and lesbians do just the sort of things I just mentioned. One of the wonderful things about serving as your editor is that I get to meet and talk with the people who are fighting for our rights and are working to improve our lives; they need your help. Why give your time and money to gay and lesbian rights and services when there are so many other injustices in the world? Well, if not you, then who?
After Proposition 8 passed, on Facebook, a friend tagged my name to a photo that read, “I Am a Victim of H8.” I immediately de-tagged myself and re-tagged myself with, “I Am a Fighter of H8.”
You are not a victim.
Barack Obama will not make the world a better place for gays and lesbians, you will. It’s with both faith and skepticism that we welcome the new president. We expect great things from him, but more importantly, we expect great things from ourselves.