A quick post on Obama and gay rights
At the risk of ruffling the feathers of a few of my blogging comrades, I think that Kevin Drum is basically correct when he asks LGBT activists to chill out a little:
Still, even putting that aside, there’s a big segment of the gay community that’s pretty pissed off at Obama right now. In one sense, I understand: they supported him, his record on gay issues is pretty modest so far, and the only way they’re going to get what they want is by keeping the pressure on him.
At the same time, some of the criticism is way over the top. Obama doesn’t suddenly become a different person whenever he’s dealing with whatever your particular hot button issue is. He’s the same guy all the time: cautious, tactical, organized, and prone to prioritizing things pretty carefully. For better or worse, he’s also sensitive about learning lessons from the Clinton administration, and Clinton obviously failed miserably when he tried to force the Pentagon to accept gays early in his administration.
The gay community has every right to be a little miffed with Obama, and it’s good that they are channeling that frustration into activism. Even if it takes a little while, sustained pressure will encourage the administration to pick up the pace, and direct more time and energy towards changing the status quo.
That said, I think it’s also important for activists to understand that Obama is on their side, even if he is slow-walking reform. Jeremy Levine (who blogs at the outstanding Social Science Lite) criticized President Obama’s Friday address as “an empty speech, void of action, conviction, or credibility.” I’ll agree that Obama’s speech was “void of action,” but to say that it lacked conviction or credibility is more than a little unfair. In fact, I think it betrays a lack of perspective. Say what you will about Obama’s speech, the fact that the President of the United States declared his unconditional support for gay rights is kind of a big deal. In fact, it’s a huge deal, especially when you consider that we aren’t even a year removed from an administration that refined anti-gay hostility and elevated it to a national pastime.
President Bush, if you remember, supported a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, and was generally supportive of state-based efforts to strip gay Americans of their rights. Indeed, stoking fear and hostility towards gay Americans was part of the Bush administration’s reelection effort. I mean, to just sort of underscore the degree to which it was open season on gay Americans, the White House consistently opposed the extension of hate crimes legislation to gays, even as the country saw a sharp rise in the number of hate crimes targeted at gays. Activists are well within their rights to criticize Obama’s speech as “just words,” but in doing so, they miss an important fact about presidential rhetoric: it makes a difference. It further brings gay concerns into the mainstream and gives them a sense of urgency.
This is certainly not to say that the gay community should ignore the fact that Obama has yet to really move on gay rights, but on the whole, I that it’s far more productive to at least acknowledge that Barack Obama is an ally, and – slow-walking notwithstanding – is openly supportive of gay rights. Tearing him down politically – as opposed to lobbying and pressuring – only makes his job that much harder.