That puts him to the left of Obama, for now. On Oct. 27, Obama gave us the first hint of what to expect if he wins re-election: support for marriage equality. In an interview with progressive bloggers, Obama told Joe Sudbay that, “attitudes evolve, including mine.” Obama, who supported same-sex marriage rights in 1996, backed off that position during the 2008 campaign and endorsed civil unions, an increasingly untenable position given recent court rulings that describe alternative forms of relationship recognition as unconstitutional.
If Obama wins, we can expect him to confirm publicly what he must already believe privately: that same-sex couples deserve the same rights as married heterosexuals.
Asked during the blogger interview about his LGBT critics, Obama replied, “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.”
A week later, the Ninth Circuit accepted the government’s request for a stay of the injunction barring enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The administration’s handling of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal has sparked outrage across the country, leading to protests by members of GetEqual. And although those protests are justified (and welcomed), they have overshadowed a laundry list of off-the-radar accomplishments.
In addition to expanding the federal hate crimes law, the Obama administration has added benefits for partners of Foreign Service officers; barred discrimination based on gender identity in the federal (civilian) workforce; expanded hospital visitation rights; and appointed a record number of openly LGBT officials.
The reason for the anger among gay critics is that Obama did not campaign on making incremental change around the edges. He campaigned on substantive change on the marquee legislative issues that have eluded us for decades. The last two years have not brought that change, but progress has been made. Consider that the Blade once published a front-page story after then-President George W. Bush uttered the word “gay” in public. Obama officials who are puzzled or angered by our impatience must understand that we lived through eight years of Bush’s attacks, including the push for a federal marriage amendment. Many of us saw 2009-2010 as the window for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and, at the very least, hearings on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and passage of the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act. None of those has happened.
Now we move into a new era with a House speaker who earned a whopping zero on HRC’s congressional scorecard and freshmen Tea Partiers bent on wasting the next two years trying to repeal health care reform. LGBT issues will be off the table until after the 2012 election.
Winning back strong LGBT support for that election is not a lost cause for Obama. He should aggressively push senators to include “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the lame duck session. With the elections over, moderate Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe won’t face intense pressure to vote the party line, opening the door to those 60 votes needed to advance repeal.
He should also expand his inner circle and listen to a wider array of opinions, something made possible by the departure of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. And he should finally take questions from the LGBT media. Speaking directly to LGBT constituents and our concerns would help undermine accusations of arrogance and aloofness made by gay critics.
The first two years of Obama’s administration are a decidedly mixed bag for LGBT Americans. But the disappointments remind us that civil rights struggles aren’t won in two years — or even 40. Obama has let us down, but there’s still time for redemption before 2012.
Kevin Naff is the editor of the Washington Blade, the capital’s LGBT newspaper of record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through this publication.