BY James Kirchick
January 11 2010 11:00 AM ET
The gay rights movement hasn’t always had a vested interest in mainstream political organizing. Most of the influential figures in early gay liberation were radicals who wanted to upend the American political and social system, not join it. The sentiment was reciprocated, as hardly anyone in the Republican or Democratic party wanted anything to do with homosexuals. Most gay activists had little choice but to spend nearly all of the 1970s as political outsiders.
But with the rise of the new right and Moral Majority in the latter part of that decade, homosexuality itself became a political issue and gay people themselves targets. If activists had earlier been content theorizing and exhorting on the political margins, they now had to plead their case to the general public. In 1978 gays in California and around the country rallied to help defeat the Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gay people from teaching in the public schools. Today, supporters of the DNC boycott point to President Carter’s cursory but effective opposition to the Briggs Initiative and say that, at the very least, is what President Obama and the Democratic Party could and should be doing in support of gay rights.
Several years later, AIDS pushed homosexuality to the forefront of the American consciousness and revitalized gay activism as a life-or-death proposition. In 1992, Bill Clinton was the first major-party presidential nominee to openly court gays as a political constituency, raising millions of dollars from them in the process. While his administration saw remarkable progress in terms of gay political visibility, it also led to a series of disastrous setbacks, from the enactment of DADT to the passage of DOMA.
According to Aravosis, a Democratic political consultant who helped initiate the DNC boycott on his blog, the current political atmosphere is beginning to “feel like 1993, but not in a good way.” Then, as now, gays were thrilled at the prospect of a fresh-faced young president who spoke about their issues in a humane and understanding fashion. Like Clinton, Obama seems to get gay concerns, and he’s personally comfortable around gay people. Although they offered pleasant speeches and frequent photo opportunities, both the Clinton and early Obama administrations provided little in terms of tangible legislative progress. And as the party apparatus tends to fall in line when its man is in the White House, the DNC has assumed the role of blocking back for the president’s inaction.
With the 2010 midterm congressional election looking increasingly perilous for progressives, thus making the imperative to pass pro-gay legislation before then all the more urgent, a picture is beginning to emerge of a Democratic president and political party that are, as Szekeres describes them, happy to take money and votes from gay people but less inclined to spend political capital on their behalf. So far, the only piece of significant gay rights legislation to pass Congress and receive the president’s signature is the expansion of the hate-crimes act, which was ultimately appended to a defense spending bill. Hearings on ENDA and the repeal of DADT have been delayed, and the prospects for getting DOMA off the books are dimming. Perhaps candidate Obama made too many promises; even some of his strongest supporters acknowledge that his early guarantees for change may be coming back to haunt him. “I wish he had said he was a ‘firm and steady ally’ rather than a ‘fierce advocate,’” says one prominent gay Democrat.
Losses on the state level have only darkened impressions of the DNC in the eyes of some gay activists. In addition to the revocation of equal marriage rights in Maine, the New York state senate rejected a marriage equality bill in December, with eight Democrats joining all of the chamber’s Republicans. At press time it appears marriage in New Jersey, which once looked like a surefire bet, may not make it through the legislature. “Many of us in the progressive movement just want to throw up,” Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality told Newark’s Star-Ledger. “Democrats put out one hand to ask for money, and with the other they stab you in the back.”
Sensing the rumblings of discontent among a loyal constituency, the party has not been silent. Partly in response to the brewing anger, gay DNC treasurer Andrew Tobias recently sent out an e-mail containing what he termed a “nicely growing list” of pro-gay initiatives sponsored by the Obama administration. The message was long, but nearly all of the measures—the decision to sign on to a United Nations declaration condemning the criminalization of homosexuality, a presidential proclamation celebrating Gay Pride Month, the appointment of an openly gay ambassador to New Zealand—were largely symbolic.
It’s unclear what effect a gay-led boycott of the DNC will have. Paul Yandura, a Democratic activist, prefers the term “strategic reward” to describe the effort, arguing that gays should make donations conditional on the passage of legislation. (Yandura’s partner, Donald Hitchcock, was fired from his position as the DNC’s gay outreach adviser in 2006 after Yandura released a memo criticizing then-DNC chairman Howard Dean’s lack of effort on promoting gay rights causes. The party settled a lawsuit brought by Hitchcock last year.) Withheld donations from the gay community wouldn’t be token resistance, Yandura claims. “Big picture, we raise millions for Democrats and DNC specifically. At one point I had documents that showed we were one fifth of money that comes from constituencies.”