Dancing With Obama

Commentary: Center Field

For months, Rick Garcia has been dealing with people who portray President-elect Barack Obama as ”at best half-hearted” on GLBT issues. ”These are generally gay Republicans and bitter Hillary supporters,” he tells me. ”And none of them know Obama or have worked with him. I’ve known him for years and have always counted on him as a strong supporter of our issues.”

Garcia, director of public policy for Equality Illinois, does call Obama’s invitation to Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation a ”stupid choice,” and has publicly criticized Obama’s opposition to civil-marriage equality. He nonetheless praises Obama’s legislative record in Springfield, Ill.:

”One of the first things Illinois State Senator Obama did was to be a co-sponsor of a bill that amended the Illinois Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And he worked closely with us to bring votes to the bill, which passed Jan. 12, 2005 – after he was sworn in as a United States senator, so of course he did not personally vote for it, but his replacement did and he spoke with other senators whose votes we needed.”Many times he would stop me at the State House to get an update on where we were and what he could do to help. I always counted on him and he was always available to me and Equality Illinois lobbyists.”Garcia adds that the help did not end after Obama moved to Washington. ”Illinois is poised to pass a civil-union bill. … We approached Obama for help. [Obama adviser] Valerie Jarrett made calls to key legislators asking for their support of the bill.”In fact, Obama takes office with a stronger pro-gay record than any previous president. As a United States senator, he earned Human Rights Campaign scores of 89 for the 109th Congress (the same as Sen. Hillary Clinton) and 94 for the 110th (to Clinton’s 95). On the other hand, Garcia cautions, ”Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod still believe that being pro-gay is politically bad and anti-gay plays to the middle. These boys should give us pause and we have to keep an eye on them.” Duly noted.Obama’s invitation to Warren, however disagreeable, is in keeping with his oft-stated commitment to reach across social and political divides. Garcia says, ”I have personally seen Obama address the issue of gay rights with individuals and groups that are not receptive to us. I’ve never had to do a ‘Gay 101′ with him.”

Here I diverge from Rep. Barney Frank, who said of Obama, ”I believe that he overestimates his ability to get people to put aside fundamental differences.”

Someone who overcame character assassination to win a landmark election can hardly be naïve enough to think he can take people on the right and ”charm them into being nice,” as Frank puts it. Look at it another way: Warren will be blessing the presidency of a pro-choice, pro-gay liberal. Indeed, he has taken heat from fellow evangelicals for precisely that reason. It’s not so clear who is being played here.

Obama brings the prospect of nominating more moderate federal judges, repairing America’s standing in the world, reversing the assaults on the Constitution, reforming health care policy, and responding to critics without saying ”So what-” or imputing disloyalty. Let’s also keep in mind that even a gay-friendly president cannot change things by himself. Each of us has a role to play, which should include encouraging the difficult conversations that we need instead of shutting them down.

Reality-based activism is about people with all their flaws and gifts, not saints and villains. There is nothing smart or empowering in rejecting a proven ally, or refusing to celebrate with him, because he is imperfect. Obama is a world-class talent, vastly better suited to the presidency than the smug, smirking scion of squandered privilege he replaces. Of course we must be vigilant and keep up the pressure, but that is done more effectively from the governing center than from an outpost of victimhood.

There will be plenty of battles ahead, as change does not come easily or all at once. Right now a political era is beginning and with it will come new challenges and opportunities. This is a poor time to let one ceremonial, sour note provoke us into sitting out the dance.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum, www.indegayforum.org. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net

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