Waiting for Change

News Analysis: 15 months after Obama entered the White House, many in the LGBT community are wondering when change will come

At the November 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, then-Senator Barack Obama invoked ”what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now”’ in urging support for his candidacy. ”I believe that there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.”

Obama told the crowd – and the country – that he was running for president ”to keep the American Dream alive for those who still hunger for opportunity, who still thirst for equality.”

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama
(Photo by Photo by Ward Morrison / File Photo)

Now others are using Dr. Martin Luther King’s same words against the president – and prominent LGBT leaders like the Human Rights Campaign’s Joe Solmonese – as their thirst for equality has been unquenched by Obama’s actions in his first 15 months in office.

When King spoke of the ”fierce urgency of now,” facing out on the National Mall with the statue of President Lincoln at his back, his words that followed are all the more instructive today of the growing conflict between the Obama administration and significant parts of LGBT America.

”This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King said. ”Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Now is the time. That’s the message from the activists behind Get Equal, and bloggers such as John Aravosis and Pam Spaulding. This is the day in which we live; this is the hope for change that Obama has engendered. As with his positions on war and executive power, Obama is being forced to confront the political consequences of implementing a more nuanced – and, they argue, lesser – version of those campaign promises.

Many saw smart steps being taken by the administration as signs that LGBT issues were being addressed strategically and taken seriously by the new president. From the extension of some same-sex partner benefits to federal employees to the positioning of supportive civilian Pentagon and military leadership in lead roles on the repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the changes being made allowed the administration — through small steps — to demonstrate the common-sense fairness of the big changes Obama had promised to make.

At the same time, other early developments suggested that Obama and his political team were not the most adept at (or, the argument goes, were not particularly interested in) engaging on LGBT issues. The lack of context for and harsh wording of the Justice Department’s courtroom defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and the lack of engagement by Obama or the Democratic National Committee in support of the pro-equality campaigns in the Maine or Washington ballot measures were two signs in Obama’s first year that his communication to and connection with the LGBT community was in need of improvement.

As fears grow about what the mid-term elections might mean for a progressive agenda, more people appear ready to argue that now is the time – and maybe the only time in the near future – for Obama to take action to help ”make real the promises of democracy” for LGBT Americans. Although it’s true that difficulties exist in Congress – particularly the Senate – for action on LGBT legislation, most grassroots and netroots activists and professional organizational advocates agree that the White House has to take the lead in the coming weeks.

Although the administration may have had a cautious but forward-moving strategy in place to advance LGBT equality, and though HRC may have believed that strategy was the best way of getting lasting change, the current political climate has turned many activists’ discomfort and criticism to anger and near-revolt.

Yet even many of those leaders facing criticism from grassroots and netroots activists see a narrow window for legislative success on measures like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of the ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, as was on full display during Michelangelo Signorile’s ”LGBT Leadership Town Hall” on April 22.

With even HRC’s Solmonese saying that there is a ”six-week window” for legislative action, strong and decisive leadership from Obama and the White House to advance LGBT equality in Congress could be the key to seeing equality move forward.

That, in fact, may be the only point on which LGBT community leaders from across the spectrum – including the oft-ignored gay Republicans – agree.

Lt. Dan Choi is willing and eager to talk to anyone and everyone about his view that the president’s inaction on DADT is a betrayal to him and a disservice to the country. With many in the media, from The Rachel Maddow Show to Newsweek, providing him a platform, the White House has found itself faced with a prominent political opponent not subject to usual Washington political pressures.

Log Cabin Republicans are fighting the continued enforcement of DADT, moving forward with the group’s legal challenge to DADT – and causing the White House similar criticism to that leveled against it for the Justice Department’s defense of DOMA. And though some of LCR’s actions could have been seen as partisan, the White House’s lack of a coherent strategy for engaging and educating the public on why it is defending laws it opposes as a policy matter has made it possible for even clearly partisan jabs to draw blood.

Finally, Get Equal has shown itself adept at taking quick, high-profile action against supportive – and even openly gay – officials in their pursuit of LGBT equality. Robin McGehee, who led several Get Equal members in a disruption of a House Education and Labor Committee hearing chaired by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) on April 21, was just as strong in her questioning out in the hallway with openly gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) as she was in the hearing with Miller.

One need not agree with the specifics of every (or any) action taken by Choi, LCR or Get Equal to agree with the underlying reality that some heavy lifting has to happen soon by big names at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue if either ENDA passage or DADT repeal is to be achieved this year.

As the specifics of legislation come together that will allow the Pentagon working group to continue forward while locking in DADT repeal at the conclusion of the working group’s review, the White House needs to make clear statements publicly and to members like Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va) that this needs to happen in this year’s Defense Authorization bill. As Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) works to put together a 60-vote coalition that can pass ENDA after House action on that bill, the White House needs to support that by making the case that an inclusive ENDA is a matter of simple fairness that is right for business and needs to be passed this year.

If this and other heavy lifting doesn’t happen in the coming weeks, we may find out if Obama was right and there is ”such a thing as being too late.”

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