Great Expectations

Gay power in the age of Obama: Will this president -- and his appointees -- make equal rights part of this nation's recovery?



As the social and professional situation of gay people in Washington is changing, there's an equally profound rhetorical and ideological reframing of gay issues afoot. The shift may dictate some revision of how the gay movement perceives its progress. Most lobbyists, staffers, consultants, and activists agree that gay rights issues should not be presented as a push by a special interest but as expressions of a comprehensive view of what constitutes good government and society. The central question about gay issues shifts from What rights should gay people have? to What kind of country do we want to live in? During the Obama administration, gay issues will often be embedded in larger policy debates: Changes in HIV/AIDS policies will be presented as part of comprehensive health care reform; domestic-partner benefits will be presented as part of tax reform; "don't ask, don't tell" will be repealed to enhance troop readiness.

It's hard to overestimate the potential impact of that change on the way gay people view themselves and the way the rest of the country views the questions heretofore known as "gay issues." Rea Carey, executive director of the country's oldest continuously operating gay advocacy group, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, says, "The public discourse and what we've created as a movement is a relatively limited view of what policy issues affect LGBT people. There are, of course, the big four -- hate crimes, [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], "don't ask, don't tell," and overturning [the Defense of Marriage Act] -- and on the state level, nondiscrimination laws. Those are critical to the well-being of our community. But I have been insisting to the media and to policymakers that we need to be involved and not left behind when we are looking at solutions to the economic crisis. LGBT people are losing jobs and in some cases don't have the protections that others have. They are taxed on partner benefits, for instance, if they're lucky enough to have them."

Mark Agrast, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who worked closely with the transition team on gay policy questions, believes this change in approach will be effective. "We want concrete steps toward real inclusion," he says. "There's general agreement that symbolic actions have no particular value. People have matured beyond the need for validation."

Well, maybe not entirely. Many hoped that Obama would name an openly gay cabinet member, but he didn't -- and the depth of the gay movement's need for validation was dramatized when, the day the president named a straight woman to the last remaining cabinet post, the White House also announced that Rick Warren would offer the inaugural invocation. The coincidence led to a conflagration when gay activists publicized Warren's activism on behalf of California's antigay Proposition 8.

One elegant if ingenious reading of the blunder, which I heard from several sources, goes like this: Obama positioned himself to do good things for us by not reflexively bending over backward for us. Choosing Rick Warren and sticking to the choice showed that he's not beholden to special interest groups. Hence: Now, when we debate gay issues, it will look like he's doing things on the merits, not just paying someone off.

This interpretation, though, may overestimate the calculation of the choice. One source close to the president says he believes that Warren wasn't fully vetted, that Obama personally asked the pastor to give the invocation because the two are friendly, and that Obama probably didn't know about Warren's work on behalf of Prop. 8 -- because the campaign was so focused on other issues in the final days.

That seems a stretch, but it is conceivable: Warren's work on AIDS in Africa did give liberals a fuzzy sense that he was more liberal on social issues than he actually is. But Obama, of all people, is a glutton for homework, and views on homosexuality would be among the first things he likely would think to question when considering such a prominent assignment for a conservative preacher.

Even if there's a grain of truth in this account, the Warren episode is another echo of the old saw that the personal is political. Though maddening in some respects, this personal dimension of political life at the highest levels is also beginning to work to gay people's advantage. "A lot of members [of Congress] look around this place and see gay staffers serving them very well," says Todd Metcalf in the whip's office. "And when we're debating ENDA, saying, that person should not be fired because of being gay, they get it. And I think if they didn't see that, I'm not sure that they would."

These gay staffers, to put it bluntly, expect to be treated like people. Their expectations alter the course of political debate among their bosses. And these expectations are, moreover, a proxy for our own.

Gay people's expectations of Obama notched up with his campaign promises to them, then again on Inauguration Day, when a list of policy goals headlined "Support for the LGBT Community" appeared on the White House website. (The list occupies fully half the page devoted to civil rights overall.) As expectations often do, ours burst into impatience, and blogs grew shrill with questions as to why no gay rights issues took the fore in the president's first days in office.

Steve Elmendorf, a leading lobbyist and Hill veteran who worked as chief of staff to Dick Gephardt when Gephardt was House majority leader, says, "There's great expectations for both our movement and for everybody else. The biggest problem for the White House, besides the economy, comes when you get to the next list of issues, is sequencing. Figuring out what the political market in Congress will bear." Robert Raben, another prominent lobbyist and former assistant attorney general, says, "People who are your friends, people who want to do the right thing and improve public policy for gays and lesbians, look you in the eye and say, 'Yes, give me a minute.' And it's hard to know what to do with that. You want to kick them and say, 'What do you mean, Give me a minute? It's been 230 years.'È‚f;" And Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post 's editorial board warns, "The community needs to take a cold shower, because this isn't happening overnight. The words on that website are wonderful, but they are going to hit reality real quick. Impatience is this movement's Achilles' heel."

Reality could not be more pressing during the week I visit Washington. I arrive the day the House debates the economic stimulus bill and speed-walk with Polis, on his way to make a floor speech in support of the package, down a hallway of the Cannon House Office Building. He shakes his head when I press the question of how gay rights bills might be sequenced in Congress and says, "Saving the economy is the most important thing for gays and lesbians. There's no gay and lesbian solution to that problem," and then, walking out the door of the building, looks up at the sky and says, with a freshman's confused frustration, "This is the wrong door!"

Many questions about sequence and strategy, he explains, will remain unanswered at least until the middle of March, when the president presents his final budget to Congress. (The budget serves as a statement of priorities, because line items imply policy shifts, which shape legislative priorities.) Back inside the building, finally we find the door Polis is looking for, and then he walks carefully down the steps-after the previous night's ice storm, even the railings are slippery-and toward the Capitol. Under low-hanging clouds obscuring the dome, the columns are yellow like paper in old books, the stones behind them the colors of teeth unbrushed, the building's exterior a range of grays that don't show up on TV, where the whole thing looks just plain white.

Tags: Politics