Way back in the early summer of 1992, I spent many of my young activist days hanging out in the ACT-UP DC office where things were as hectic as you’d imagine with a presidential election looming on the horizon. As we were planning a particular action that would target the candidates, one long-time, extremely radical and sometimes obnoxiously vocal activist said, ”I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize the Clinton campaign.”
It’s worth recalling how high the stakes were then, with AIDS ravaging the community and the movement fighting for mere recognition of gays and lesbians as human beings. The promise of a president who would acknowledge the toll of HIV, who had pledged to lift the ban on gays in the military, is what led a bunch of us to dance in 17th Street the night Bill Clinton was elected.
High hopes gave way to low experiences. The political debacle over military service gave us ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and while certain aspects of the public health battle against HIV/AIDS improved in the 1990s, homophobia and anti-gay hatred in Congress gave us such niceties as ”no promo homo” laws that blocked effective HIV prevention interventions for gay men.
In large part, I’m recalling all this because of Chris Geidner’s second installment in his history of the Defense of Marriage Act, that particularly obnoxious bill that defined our relationships out of existence in the eyes of federal law. It’s bracing to look back and see how people we perceived, then and now, as our friends advocating for the president to sign the legislation in the name of political expediency and pragmatism. And, yes, there a probably some lessons for us in how we perceive our friends today.
I’ve been seeing for a while now a classic glass half-empty/half-full dichotomy in our community when it comes to President Barack Obama. For example, some cheer the filing of a legal brief laying the groundwork for ending DOMA; others sneer that by filing the brief on a Friday the White House is trying to hide what it’s doing.
I understand frustration with a White House that has made missteps on LGBT issues — the earlier brief that used anti-gay canards in defense of a law the administration purported to oppose being exhibit A in the glass half-empty argument — but I can’t share the level of anger I’m seeing percolate in blogs and Twitter feeds. There’s a debate to be had about the president’s wink-and-a-nod evolutionary approach to marriage, but it’s not an apocalyptic battle of homophobia versus equality. It’s a debate over tactics and strategy.
Patience may be a virtue for politicians, but it’s not for activists. We all should yell frequently and loudly for things to move faster, for equality to come sooner. But raging as if we’re dealing with an administration that has accomplished nothing for LGBT equality or claiming that Obama is no better than the Republican presidents who’ve preceded him is simply howling for the sake of howling. It’s misdirected anger that does little to nothing to advance our causes, and likely doesn’t do much to help bring along new allies.
Just to be clear, we have no need to pay obeisance to Barack Obama for taking steps to acknowledge that which in a just world would be self evident. Not to be critical and vocal would be a betrayal of our own community and self-interest. But if anger is your only response to what’s happening on gay issues right now, you’re missing the picture.