View From the Hill: Obama's Silence

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com May 29 2009 12:00 AM ET

I couldn't help but be reminded this week of Andrew Sullivan's piece "The Fierce Urgency of Whenever" when President Barack Obama swept into Los Angeles the day after California's same-sex marriage ban was upheld and failed to address the issue in any way during his speech at the Democratic National Committee fund-raiser he attended.

Yes, he had private discussions. Gay political consultant Chad Griffin, a former staffer for President Bill Clinton, said he prodded President Obama about LGBT rights during a conversation at the event. "I was lucky enough to carry a direct message to the president -- we urged his support for full federal LGBT rights and marriage equality," Griffin told me, adding that he did not feel comfortable sharing details of the president's response.

While I appreciate that, at the very least, some behind-the-scenes pushes are being made, sugar plums are not exactly dancing through my head when it hits the pillow at night.

In fact, reading a recent Politico.com piece -- "Inside Obama's Hispanic Strategy" -- reminded me of just how willfully the administration is avoiding LGBT issues in comparison with other interest groups.

First the article notes that Obama aides brought a syndicated Spanish-language radio talk show host known as "Piolin" into the Oval Office for a sit-down with the president.

"We need to be able to communicate through radio, and obviously you've got the biggest listenership, so we've got to make sure you're involved," Obama said during the interview.

In stark contrast to the administration's LGBT reticence, the article observes that wooing the Hispanic vote has become "a near-obsession" for Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Equally eye-opening is the unbridled pressure that Latino politicians and lobby groups are bringing to bear on Washington. The Hispanic Caucus, for instance, sent a letter to the president urging him to nominate the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice -- a box that Obama checked off this week with his choice of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Hispanic activists have also been highly vocal about pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.

"There's going to be growing frustration if we don't see some tangible and real signals that this is going to be carried out in earnest this fall," Janet Murguia told Politico.com, suggesting that Obama needed to make it clear this summer that he wanted congressional action on the legislation. Murguia is president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group.

Let me be crystal clear here -- Hispanic advocates are lobbying privately and publicly, being invited to the White House for lunches and conferences, and still telling the press, mainstream and otherwise, that they expect results.

Next month the administration will apparently be presenting a package of pro-LGBT announcements. I'm not sure all of what will be included in that package, but I'm waiting to see if it will be enough. Will anything that doesn't address "don't ask, don't tell" and full marital rights satisfy the masses, who have shown increasing unrest lately?

Just last week longtime LGBT activist David Mixner called for a March on Washington this fall and an unaffiliated group of activists assembled in Dallas to put forth a united set of goals for the movement. While I'm not sure what will come of either effort, these independent and simultaneous calls to action demonstrate that many people feel the fierce urgency of now being carelessly squandered by Washington's political elite.

When the administration's LGBT announcements come, I will be watching what the Amy Balliett s of the nation think, not what those in Washington say. Why? Because a cultural and generational shift is taking place that Washington politicians and even our LGBT organizations seem to be either missing, dismissing, or ignoring.

Here's my thoroughly unscientific, crude analysis: Gay baby boomers typically stayed in the closet because they didn't want their lives to be ruined; LGBT Gen-Xers expected that we (I'm an Xer) could be mostly visible without fearing life, limb, and job loss (depending on where one lived) but figured there might be some trade-offs in rights even if we knew it was unfair; a majority of millennials, LGBT and straight, just don't get why we all pay the same taxes, work the same jobs, make the same contributions, but queer people don't enjoy the same legal rights and protections in the military, civil marriage, employment, or anywhere else for that matter.

So while Washington tinkers around the edges of LGBT rights -- maybe trying to get gay couples counted in the Census, strengthening federal hate-crimes protections, or providing same-sex partner health benefits to federal workers -- our nation's young may simply wonder why their best friends can't get married or why their sisters and brothers died cloaked in the closet of our country's uniform.

I'm quite confident that is not the "change" they envisioned at the ballot box last fall, and I do wonder, what will be the price of President Obama's silence among the ranks of our nation's future?