Saturday, June 27, 2009

Temperature Control

Keeping the heat on President Obama is right, but let’s be realistic.

By Steve Charing

Towards the end of the Pride festival a young lady asked me, "When will Obama give us our rights?" as if he can wave a magic wand.

The next day in an uncharacteristically testy e-mail blast, Equality Maryland called on its supporters to "Give President Obama a Piece of Your Mind."

Recently a well-publicized partial boycott by LGBT donors of a Democratic National Committee fundraiser was in response to the Department of Justice’s over-the-top legal brief in defending the Defense of Marriage Act as well as inaction on securing other aspects of the LGBT agenda.

And the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network staged a demonstration in front of the White House to bemoan the lack of progress to repeal "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." Other protest marches in D.C. are planned for the fall.

What is going on here is a series of sporadic outbursts of frustration by many lgbt activists who resent the DOJ brief’s language and the slow pace in which campaign promises are being addressed.

Beleaguered President
LGBT activists are not the only ones turning the heat up on President Obama. He is also being criticized by Hispanics over the lack of comprehensive immigration reform. Environmentalists are on his case for not acting swiftly on global warming. Mr. Obama is hearing it from Republicans who oppose everything he is trying to do to lift the economy out of oblivion after they largely put it there.

He’s feeling pressure from the left, the right, the center, the media—just about everyone. He’s too timid on Iran. He’s driving the deficit up. His healthcare plan will doom the nation. He’s too pro-Israel. He’s too pro-Palestine. And North Korea has its sights set on Waikiki Beach. It seems like it’s time for him to get another dog.

This barrage of criticism and demands resembles a national dunking machine where Obama sits on the platform and the whole country is hurling balls at the metal circular plate.

From our perspective, President Obama clearly could have imposed a moratorium on DADT discharges while Congress sorts it out. And while I doubt he personally approved the language in the DOJ brief, he is still responsible for it, and it counters his pledge to repeal it through legislation. Are these outbursts, however, the right strategy?

The political realities
Of course, we want our agenda pushed through. We have a Democratic president with a huge Democratic majority in Congress—a window of opportunity that will not remain open forever despite the GOP’s foibles. But let’s get real.

President Obama has been in office just over 5 months out of 48 months in his first term. He potentially could reach 96 months if re-elected. In the short time since inauguration he has dealt with problems that would make any other person find an escape clause in the contract. His issues are too numerous to delineate here, but I’m sure there is no question as to the challenges facing our country. Imagine McCain and Palin grappling with these crises.

Mr. Obama didn’t win the election based on a gay agenda. He won on "change" and to put Democratic policies in place and eradicate the previous administration’s mistakes. He won on ending the war in Iraq and implementing some form of universal healthcare. And he won by being the anti-Bush.

He amassed 365 electoral votes. Even if Mr. Obama did not receive a single lgbt vote (and 30% of lgbt folks did not vote for him anyway), he still would have won. That’s right, as a bloc, and I use that term loosely, we didn’t win the election for him.

But that doesn’t mean he will renege on his campaign promises to us. The key components of our legislative agenda must originate in Congress. It is that body that needs to act on an all-inclusive ENDA, to repeal of DADT and to pass the Matthew Sheppard Act while we still have this large majority.

Alas, the repeal of DOMA appears to be years away from passage. It’s not politically realistic that sitting Representatives will want to enter their next electoral campaign with their opponents harping on the fact that the incumbent is opposed to preserving the institution of marriage.

But we need to start educating them and it would be easier to succeed on this front if we can achieve victories in the other important issues first. Once we achieve equality in one area, it is harder justify discrimination in other areas.

As much as the bully pulpit is useful for a popular president to help frame the agenda and kick-start the process, Mr. Obama will not sacrifice any political capital on these matters—yet—until HIS priorities are realized. Congress, however, must act now.

What needs to be done
Barney Frank, one of only three openly gay Representatives, believes that too much blame is being placed on President Obama and not enough significance is being attached to lobbying members of Congress. "It’s not that Obama doesn’t want to do it, but you need the votes," Frank said. "You can’t complain about the president until you’ve called your senator."

It doesn’t matter if President Obama is on our side if Congress won’t play ball. A grassroots effort is needed to persuade members of Congress—district by district.

Maintain the pressure on the president to make sure he understands we’re not going away. Let’s try to persuade him to deliver a speech along the lines of his race speech in Philadelphia and the recent speech in Cairo whereby he reached out to Muslims. Here he could denounce discrimination against lgbt people and to reiterate his desire to be a "fierce advocate for equality."

If we become extreme, any reactive moves on his part would be seen as appeasing a segment of his base. And keep in mind there is a significant number within his base who opposes transgender rights and marriage equality.

At the partially-boycotted DNC fundraiser Vice-President Joe Biden told the lgbt crowd, "I want to thank you for being a critical – critical – voice for keeping the nation focused on the unfinished business of true equality for all of our people; and I know, and this administration knows, that we have so much more to do. I promise you, I promise you, with your help we’ll get there in this administration."

The window is 48 or even 96 months, not 5. Remember that.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Safe or Out?

The hesitancy on the part of gay people to fully come out proves we still have a long way to go.

By Steve Charing

It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the more LGBT folks who come out, the more likely our march towards equality will strengthen. When straight neighbors, co-workers, family members and friends know you as a person and then learn that you are LGBT, they are prone to be on the side equality and justice because of YOU. With straight allies, we will make progress. It’s a guarantee. They just need to find that comfort zone.
TV shows like Will & Grace presented images of our community through the antics of the likable characters. Clever and witty as the show was, it did tend to reinforce stereotypes that gay men are screaming queens or they are loveless. But all in all, we benefited since the show provided a needed comfort zone for an audience that in many cases never knew any out gay people.

When celebrities or other public figures come out—voluntarily—it gives our cause an added boost. Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out was the talk of the whole world. Although it wasn’t a complete surprise that she is a lesbian, the public still saw this as a bold and largely welcome step. Her career has since skyrocketed.

Years earlier Elton John admitted he wasn’t "bisexual" after all, but declaring he is gay didn’t hurt his career either. In fact, he emerged into superstar status and was even knighted!

Neil Patrick Harris has a successful TV gig going even after his coming out and deservedly so. He is not only a polished performer but he is right out there on the front lines fighting for equality. If there ever was a true lgbt role model, he is definitely on the list.

Others celebs, such as Rosie O’Donnell, Melissa Etheridge, T.R. Knight, Clay Aiken, Lance Bass and Lindsay Lohan came out with varying effects on their careers. But in every case, it was a positive development for the LGBT community.

Most recently, Adam Lambert, the runner-up in American Idol’s 8th season, came out officially and publicly in Rolling Stone magazine. No shocker there. But why did he wait?

Obviously, it was a calculation that while the AI contest was still in play, he didn’t want to risk losing the potent "tween" vote if he had been more up-front about his sexuality. It turned out he lost that vote as well as others amidst the swirling rumors fueled by his guy-liner, wild costumes and enlightening photos.

Would it have changed the results had he come out during the show’s run? Not likely. While some would have given Lambert props for his courage, those voters who were inclined to vote for Kris Allen would have continued to do so.

Lambert’s coming out is welcome to be sure, but his comment to Rolling Stone, "I'm trying to be a singer, not a civil rights leader," tempered the enthusiasm some.

Other "out’ celebrities have been even more reluctant. They are known to be gay but don’t want to push the envelope. One prominent local celebrity who had come out in the Baltimore Sun declined an interview with OUTloud lest she be defined by her sexual orientation. Despite the fact she would have been embraced as a role model, this iconic figure is ostensibly "playing it safe."

Also puzzling was the rationale given by the staff of Sex in the City’s Cynthia Nixon to an OUTloud request to publish the text of a recent speech at Equality Maryland’s "Night Out For Equality," where she had been the guest of honor. Her speech garnered a standing ovation from the 400 or so in attendance.

On May 17 the actress had publicly announced her engagement to Christine Marinoni at a gay-rights rally in New York. Her address to the cheering crowd is on You Tube. It made all the papers. She’s out!

But when asked to allow our readers to see her exceptional speech in print from the "Night Out for Equality" event, we learned through an intermediary that the Cynthia Nixon camp did not want to release the text to the press because they were worried that the words would be taken out of context.

That’s as mystifying as it gets. If the spoken word is not considered vulnerable to misinterpretation, why would the written word be taken out of context? This safe and cautious approach mitigates the gutsy pronouncements from other celebrities who come out unambiguously.

It’s bad enough that gay and lesbian elected officials tend to remain in the closet. Gay professional athletes fear coming out. Other gay and lesbian celebrities stay closeted as well. And that’s a sad thought especially since we are in the midst of celebrating Pride.

But if you are out, then REALLY come out. All this caution does is demonstrate that there is still fear, still trepidation, still hesitation for declaring unequivocally who you are as a person. That shouldn’t be.

Apparently, we still have a long way to go.