Editor's Letter: President Obama Changed Our Lives and Our Politics
President Obama campaigned this weekend in New Hampshire.
I believe The Advocate has been instrumental in forcing politicians to take a position on LGBT equality, and we have been critical in drawing a bright line between supporters of civil rights and those who view some of their fellow humans as inherently inferior. In an election season, we take that mission very seriously.
The LGBT media, broadly, has been instrumental in a number of positive changes in the intersection of politics and media — not just gay media, but mainstream media as well. We’ve cultivated an audience by letting our readers know that someone is watching when, for example, elected officials make slurs against transgender people, and that someone is paying attention to how elected officials vote on adoption by LGBT people or same-sex couples.
In reporting on these matters over the years, and especially now in the age of the Internet, the mainstream media has come to see the value in paying attention to LGBT issues. It’s not always for the most high-minded of reasons. We make for good ratings, because our stories and our struggles are at the center of the so-called culture wars.
LGBT topics are good stories, and that, after all, is what journalists seek. Many otherwise “straight” news outlets now see the value in having LGBT news be a part of their reporting. But I’m proud to say that of the news outlets that we compete with, we’re still the only gay owned and operated national news publication.
Clearly. we at The Advocate are unlike many other journalists. We don’t hide from the fact that we have an agenda — the agenda of pursuing equality under the law, and respect in civil society. (And brunch. Brunch should be part of any gay agenda.)
LGBT stories are good stories, and holding a politician’s feet to the fire — speaking truth to power — is something that many journalists feel is part of the fundamental mission of a free press.
Our news has become part of the daily news cycle. And that means that people — politicians and regular folks alike — who never gave our equality much thought are now far less likely to view the matter as inconsequential. Through widespread understanding of our community’s goals, we know that people are paying attention, and those who were once silently complicit in our oppression are now forced to voice their bigotry or change their minds.
This election cycle is like no other, and it’s due to the interplay of cultural events, changing laws and attitudes, and of course, the big announcement the president made this year.
I want to take a look at some of the stories that we’ve been reporting on that I think speak to the state of our culture and politics right now.
One of the more surprising political stories this year has been was Chick-fil-A. The fast-food restaurant chain's president asserted his opposition to same-sex marriage in July, and since then the San Francisco and D.C. mayors tweeted their disapproval, as did Nancy Pelosi when she wrote that she prefers KFC. A Chicago alderman attempted to block new stores from opening in that city. New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, who is gay, urged New York Universie to sever ties with the chain. The mayor of Boston wrote an angry letter that kind of blew up in his face, and Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin took full advantage of the PR opportunity to eat chicken sandwiches in support of biblical values. I don’t think the culture warriors have made use of a food football quite so effectively since we rallied against Anita Bryant’s Florida orange juice.
In addition to those stories affecting LGBTs that made national news, just think about how historic this moment in America’s politics is:
We have the first black incumbent president running for reelection in the very last American general election cycle when white voters will be the majority of the electorate. A GOP strategist said rather candidly, “This is the last time anyone will try to do this” — “this” being Mitt Romney’s near-total reliance on white votes to win a presidential election.
This is the first time that marriage equality could win at the polls. The fundamentalists have always enjoyed saying that when put to a vote, marriage equality for gays and lesbians always loses. Well, it might not this year. Polls from last week show that Minnesota’s proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is losing for the first time, with 46% supporting it and 49% opposing. And Referendum 74 in Washington State, to affirm marriage equality is leading by 55% to 40%, a significant 15-percentage-point margin.
While there is no federal recognition for same-sex marriages, the Obama administration has finally written deportation guidelines for binational couples. Immigration personnel must now consider “family relationships involving long-term, same sex partners.” It’s only a start, but it’s a great start, and these are guidelines that same-sex couples can take into court.
We could have our very first lesbian U.S. senator. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is a seven-term incumbent representative from Wisconsin, and she’s in a neck-and-neck race with Tommy Thompson, a former four-term governor. In fact, there are a record number of gays seeking public office, and they’re not all Democrats. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund is endorsing a record 175 openly LGBT candidates for office, and among those, eight candidates are endorsed for U.S. House and Senate races.
Also this year, the Supreme Court will likely announce that it’s taking up one or several cases that address the Defense of Marriage Act or California’s Prop 8. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Justice Scalia has already essentially said that he doesn’t need to hear the case to rule against equality.
In another case, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal by the National Organization for Marriage, which was trying to avoid disclosing the names of donors to the 2009 effort to repeal marriage equality in Maine. Mainers will be voting again on whether to establish marriage equality, and polls early [in October] showed 57% support.
Even our old pal Ann Coulter does her part. She shows up here and there, including, rather incredibly, at GOProud events, to say that gay rights are not civil rights. But I’m hardly concerned about that clown in a cocktail dress, because I feel certain that the more she talks about gay rights and civil rights — even when contrasting the two — the more people see there is truly a connection. People know what fairness looks like. Unfair is unfair.
One thing that I’m really curious to see post-election is the proportion of LGBTs who vote GOP. In the past few election cycles, about one quarter of people who describe themselves as gay in exit polls say they voted for the Republican presidential candidate. And in the past this may have been a matter of choosing between two less than ideal choices.
In recent years, though, there was plenty of daylight between the ideologies of Democratic and Republican parties on LGBT matters. There was no honest champion for our rights in times when being pro-gay was thought to be a potentially losing proposition. Bill Clinton included gays in his campaign, but both he and John Kerry were opposed to marriage equality. And Obama started out that way as well.
But the Republican candidates have always been actively opposed to gay rights, and Romney is no exception. He has positioned himself to the right of John McCain on gay marriage and civil unions, and he favors an antigay constitutional amendment, just like George W. Bush did. That also places him to the right of Dick Cheney on this issue.
The GOP platform is openly hostile to LGBTs, desiring to reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell,” prevent same-sex marriages from being recognized by the federal government, and stop efforts to prevent gays and lesbians from being persecuted in Africa. The platform calls for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and affirms the party’s support for the Defense of Marriage Act.
I’m not attempting to conflate GOP candidates’ individual positions with the party platform, but it does make news now when a candidate breaks from the official party line. And though it may be increasingly tough to be nominated by the GOP if you stray from the platform, it does happen sometimes. Linda McMahon, a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut, pledged that she would vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. And Gary DeLong, the Republican nominee in California’s new 47th congressional district, said he supports gay marriage. Richard Tisei is running in Massachusetts’s sixth congressional district, and he also supports marriage equality. Though I’m not sure if he’s an openly gay Republican, or an openly Republican gay.
Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor, presidential candidate, and Mormon, shocked some Utahans last month when he said he supported civil unions. And Sen. Susan Collins of Maine became the first Republican to cosponsor a bill that would end discrimination against same-sex couples in immigration deportation cases.
But the big news this year, for me, was the president’s endorsement of marriage equality, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Prior to that, Obama’s administration had done more for LGBT rights than any of its predecessors. I know you’re familiar with many of these advancements, but they bear repeating to our colleagues, our families and friends, and our neighbors.
He signed the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act and lifted the ban on HIV-positive green card applicants and visitors to the U.S. He signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the first pro-LGBT federal law in U.S. history.
After just two years into office, he had appointed more LGBTs to head commissions and agencies, to ambassadorships, and to senior staff positions than any president, surpassing the entire two-term record of Bill Clinton. He has quadrupled the number of openly gay judges on the federal bench. He signed the United Nations Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, a declaration George W. Bush refused to sign.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s moving and historic speech to an international audience of the U.N.’s human rights group in Geneva last December, observing the anniversary of the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, made the Obama administration’s perspective very clear, that LGBT rights are human rights.
Obama’s State Department has issued diplomatic passports and provided other benefits to the same-sex partners of foreign service employees.
The Obama administration launched a national resource center for LGBT elders. He ensured that insurance exchanges cannot deny coverage to someone LGBT under the Affordable Care Act. And the administration eliminated discriminatory Census Bureau policies so our relationships are counted; he directed hospitals receiving federal funds (nearly all hospitals) to allow partner visitation rights; and convened a first-ever summit aimed at combating bullying in schools.
By this time you may be detecting a bias. I’ll admit, I wrote The Advocate’s first endorsement of a presidential candidate in our publication’s history.
And the reason was the president’s statement of May 9, unequivocally in favor of marriage equality. By saying aloud, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” in a televised interview on ABC, he has sparked conversation domestically and internationally. While he is our president at home, globally he’s an icon, a symbol of the promise of America, of the promise of equality. By virtue of his unique position, his endorsement of marriage equality is not merely rhetoric. His words constitute action. His statement is enormous and has the power to move millions in a way that a statement from no other person could have. Obama is not a far-left leader. His policies are moderate and only appear particularly progressive in contrast with the policies of his predecessor, policies that pandered to the worst instincts of ultraconservatives. (Those instincts were evidenced by 13 state constitutional amendments banning marriage equality in 2004.)
In this statement, and in the proliferation of understanding of our issues, I see a future trajectory for LGBT rights in our politics.
I believe we will never again see a Democratic presidential nominee emerge from the primary system with an anti-equality stance. That position would appear too backward to have legitimacy in the 21st century. Any candidate of either party who rejects the full equality of LGBTs will be asked to account for his or her view that we are damaged or inferior, and to explain why rights should be afforded to some but not all American citizens.
Granted, I’m not a prognosticator, but I did predict when I was writing that endorsement this summer that marriage equality would be included in the platform at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. That historic inclusion seemed inevitable to me, and it feels like an additional step toward enshrining LGBT equality as a core Democratic principle.
Any Democratic candidate or elected official who opposes marriage equality will henceforth be in direct opposition with the view of the leader of the free world on a civil rights issue, and that will make stumping for inequality an increasingly uncomfortable task. And no longer will fringe bigots, in elected office or on conservative talk radio or television, be able to cite the president’s former stance opposing marriage equality as a tool to suppress or to harm LGBTs.
MATTHEW BREEN is editor in chief of The Advocate. He shared these thoughts with the Houston GLBT Political Caucus in October in Texas.