When a Nod’s Not Enough
BY James Kirchick
January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET
On the evening of October 10, then–Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama attended a fund-raiser in Philadelphia for major gay donors at the city’s Sheraton Hotel. According to the event’s organizer, Equality Forum executive director Malcolm Lazin, the benefit was the only top-level LGBT donor event Obama attended during the general election campaign. Fittingly, Obama used that exclusive opportunity to make a dramatic announcement that, if not technically a promise, was nonetheless heartening as far as political pledges go.
“He anticipated that very early on both hate crimes and [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] would pass,” Lazin says. “Then he went further and said that he expected during his term[s], four or eight years, that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and [the Defense of Marriage Act] would be repealed.” At no other time in the campaign did Obama speak with such specificity about gay issues, nor has he or anyone in his administration made such detailed comments about his legislative agenda with respect to those issues since he won the presidency. But if Obama does indeed undertake the steps needed to accomplish the goals that Lazin says he outlined -- and, more important, if he is successful in doing so -- it would solidify his position in the pantheon of gay rights heroes.
Barack Obama was arguably the most pro-gay major-party presidential campaigner in American history. From his first national political address (the barnstorming keynote he delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention) up to his acceptance speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, he repeatedly spoke of the struggles gay people face, explicitly linking them to the greater civil rights movements that have illuminated American history. So it’s understandable that his election has left gay men and women feeling a bit giddy. And the fact that all this inclusive language is coming from a man who, as of January 20, will become the country’s first black president makes the rhetoric all the more meaningful.
While everyone has discussed the transformative nature of a black president, few have pondered its possible effects on the gay populace -- how a black president may move the country toward greater acceptance of other minorities, including gay people. “His general philosophy is to push past identity politics to a truly inclusive vision,” says Evan Wolfson, founder and executive director of the New York City–based group Freedom to Marry. “That’s the way he looks at the world, and I think gay people belong comfortably in that picture.” As Wolfson attests, even when Obama isn’t addressing gay issues explicitly, many gay people intuit a subtle embrace in his soaring rhetoric about bridging electoral, cultural, and regional divides, sensing that Obama is speaking to them too.