Sitting on the Mountaintop

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Did Obama calm the rash of criticism regarding his inaction on gay rights with his recent speech to the Human Rights Campaign?

On 3 April 1968, the day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., told an enthusiastic Memphis audience, "(God’s) allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!" While his words were hihgly inspirational and eerily prophetic. Yet, 41 years after King delivered these poetic words, American blacks are still waiting to collect on the promissory note due them.

Many LGBT individuals have grown to understand the frustration of waiting for equality. Many felt that with the election of Barack Obama a year ago, that they too had seen the promised land. However, ten months into the Obama era, are LGBT individuals are still waiting on the mountaintop, listening to empty platitudes from a president who has used us to garner much needed political support. Or are we really headed towards equality and recognition under the law?

It's understandable that Obama wouldn't place LGBT rights at the top of his agenda in the initial months of his term. He inherited from the previous administration a record deficit, a crumbling economy, and one of the nation's longest wars. These issues affect all Americans, gay and straight, and few would argue that there were any more pressing or complex matters facing the incoming president.

Nonetheless, these national crises didn't stop some LGBT activists from sounding the battle cry at Obama's 100 days mark - "You're ignoring us!" - or again at the six-month mark. The cries of discontent echoed through D.C. and the blogosphere once more as LGBT Americans prepared for the 11 October march on Washington, and again in the week following the march. For many, complaints focus not just on what the president hasn't done, but what he has done.

What his administration has done is defend the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. It has failed to appoint any LGBT persons to Cabinet positions. It has included an opponent of gay equality in its inauguration (Pastor Rick Warren). It has eliminated the position of White House liaison to the LGBT community (along with other liaison positions).

In contrast, LGBT individuals have watched while the president intervened in the racial dispute between a white cop and black professor and sent his Attorney General to Chicago to heal wounds following the senseless, tragic murder of a black teen. This same Attorney General announced during Black History month, "Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must – and will – lead the nation to the 'new birth of freedom' so long ago promised by our greatest President." Provided you are a racial or ethnic minority or a woman.

It isn't surprising that gay Americans were waiting for the big speech from an administration representative pledging commitment to a "new birth of freedom" for us. Or for the president to speak out against any of the thousands of cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Or for government intercession in the countless cases of gay-bashing that happen, particularly against elderly gays and gay teens.

Sure, the president held a reception at the White House for LGBT individuals - I'm sure it was a lovely affair with great food -- and he included LGBT families in the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt. Nice gestures, but having your kid find an Easter Egg isn't going to help a whole lot when the state declares that you aren't really related to your child because he or she only shares DNA with your partner.

Among the most vocal critics of the president has been Richard Socarides, former advisor on LGBT affairs to President Clinton. At the 100 day mark of the Obama administration, Socarides lamented that the Obama administration had failed to live up to its promise to be a "consistent" and "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." ("Where's our Fierce Advocate?", The Washington Post, 2 May 2009) Several months later, Socarides continued his complaints, noting "Looking at the administration’s performance overall during these past five months, we see how little progress has been made to fulfill the president’s promises to our community, on even the most basic level. It is disheartening." ("The Choice to Defend DOMA, and its Consequences", 14 June 2009)

While Socarides acknowledges the difficulty of promoting a pro-gay agenda in a stilted and divided legislative body, he fails to acknowledge that the two issues that trouble him the most, the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy, were signed into law on his watch and by his boss. Apparently, the signing into law of these two anti-gay measures didn't trouble Socarides enough at the time of their passage for him to give up that high-profile administration job he clung to for the duration of the Clinton Administration, but now he has a sudden sense of urgency.

Nor does Socarides recognize that it is his former boss who has created this sense of mistrust among many LGBT persons concerning hollow campaign pledges and promises. Bill Clinton was supposed to be our fierce advocate; he was the guy who was going to bring us out of the cultural and political closet and put our needs at the fore. But, after eight years of Clinton, most gay Americans found themselves no better off than they were before, and some were even worse off. Is it any wonder that we are a little wary of another charismatic Democratic president who has big ideas for our community?

Then, suddenly, the Obama administration began to take notice. Possibly it was the fact that mainstream media, such as The Los Angeles Times, were calling on the president to get gay issues off the back burner. Perhaps it was the fact that many prominent gay advocates refused to attend an important Democratic fund-raiser. Or maybe it was that some advocates had begun to withhold donations from Democratic candidates. According to John Aravosis in Salon, "the only reason we're getting anything: The gay ATM ran dry." ("President Obama Betrays the Gay Community", 17 June 2009)

Whatever the cause, there has been a flurry of activity. The administration appointed its first openly gay ambassador, David Huebner, who will serve in New Zealand and Samoa. It continued the executive order granting benefits to partners of federal employees, and gave the partners of overseas diplomats "family" status. And it has worked for the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, which includes LGBT individuals in hate crimes legislation. The Shepard Act should be law by the end of the year.

And Obama gave "the big speech" to the Human Rights Campaign annual dinner. Despite his insistence that he was just the "opening act for Lady Gaga", it was a pivotal moment for the community and all ears were trained carefully to see what he would -- and would not -- say. What he did say was the right thing -- that he would end DOMA, DADT would be discontinued as military policy, and that gay and lesbian partners would be given full marital benefits (if not marriage). He not only gave us the right words in terms of legislative agenda, but he gave us the rights words to help us believe that our concerns are real to him and that he is empathetic:

This story, this fight continues now. And I'm here with a simple message: I'm here with you in that fight. For even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot -- and we will not -- put aside issues of basic equality… And it's a testament to Matthew (Shepard) and to others who've been the victims of attacks not just meant to break bones, but to break spirits -- not meant just to inflict harm, but to instill fear. Together, we will have moved closer to that day when no one has to be afraid to be gay in America. When no one has to fear walking down the street holding the hand of the person they love.

Showing the type of political and rhetorical savvy that helped garner him LGBT support during the campaign, Obama addressed those like Socarides and March organizer Cleve Jones who had been critical of the speed with which progress was coming:

Now, I've said this before, I'll repeat it again -- it's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago… And while progress may be taking longer than you'd like as a result of all that we face -- and that's the truth -- do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach.

Despite including the "right words" in his speech, some were still critical. Nothing in the speech was new, they argued, and we'd heard it all before. We no longer want to know what you will do, but when, these detractors announced the next day during speeches at the Washington march. For these critics, the only thing they wanted to hear from the president was a timeline.

Like most gay Americans, gaining equal legal standing is extremely important to me. However, unlike those cynical of the president's intentions, I'm willing to give the man some time. But then, my circumstances aren't like most gay Americans. My partner is suffering with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and Chronic Hepatitis B, and he has no insurance. I know that if gay marriage were legalized, I could get him on my insurance at work, but that would be of little use as his ailments fall into that frightening category of "pre-existing conditions" and wouldn't be covered.

What we as a couple need more than a marriage license is a health care system that allows him to seek the medical care he needs, without compromise or fear of cost. He needs to be treated by doctors who aren't so overworked treating the poor and indigent that they can afford to devote the time to his case that it warrants. If I have to live a few more months as a second-class citizen to get him the medical care he needs, I can deal with that.

Just as the gay father who has lost his job is no doubt more concerned with the state of the economy and his ability to feed the kids than whether two men married in Massachusetts can divorce in Texas. Likewise, the lesbian woman who has risked her financial future to buy her first house only see the bottom fall out of her mortgage is not as concerned that a translator in the Pentagon is about to lose his job for "telling".

This is not to say that these issues of inequity are unimportant, and it is understandably difficult to be patient when you are so close to seeing decades of fighting for equality about to pay off. But it makes us, as a community, look petty and small when we insist on being allowed to ride at the front of the bus, ahead of those who are ill, hungry, or losing their homes.

I am reassured by this president's words and actions that he hasn't left us alone on that mountaintop, nor is his waiting for the right time to push us down the other side and back into the land of the neglected as his predecessors have. We are close to that promised land, and I am confident that we will get there soon. But what good do our victories do if they come by diverting attention from those among us who are most needy? Sometimes, those who get to drink from the fountain first are those who are thirstiest. As it should be.

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