View From the Hill - A Presidential Invitation

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com June 27 2009 12:00 AM ET

COMMENTARY: I walked into a time warp of sorts when I visited a fundraiser put on by the Velvet Foundation a couple weeks ago in support of a national museum for LGBT history and culture.

Protest signs from the '60s read, "Homosexual Citizens Want Fair Treatment From Their Fellow Citizens" and "15 Million U.S. Homosexuals Ask For The Right To The Pursuit of Happiness" and "Revise Insulting Military Regulations on Homosexuals."

Besides the fact that we - and even the Associated Press! - have largely abandoned the Helmsian slur "homosexual," what has changed since then?

Indeed, the protesters who gathered outside Thursday night's LGBT Leadership Council Fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee might as well have been wielding the same '60s-era appeals.

What we are talking about here is a matter of justice - and while many states have slowly but surely been working toward that end, the federal government has offered nothing more than a blind eye to LGBT Americans. Rep. Tammy Baldwin made that point quite precisely at a press briefing this week for the introduction of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act.

Passing the legislation into law would "create a new day," she said. It will represent "the first time that Congress has said that discrimination exists against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, it is wrong, and it is illegal in the employment setting. Once you've said that, you don't really have an excuse to say that a little discrimination is OK in this arena or in that arena."

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Here I agree with the gentlelady from Wisconsin - one bite at the apple of justice on ENDA could go a long way by virtue of the fact that Congress would quite literally employ equality for LGBT people as a guiding principle going forward.

As divided as community activists have seemed of late, I'm quite certain our community would uniformly embrace that moment.

But let's be clear, it takes all of us to get there - the rabble-rousers outside the DNC fundraiser as well as the folks who attended. While many activists have berated those who went to the dinner, I have a grand appreciation for both. Choosing to skip the dinner was downright gutsy. It was fresh, unexpected and a complete aberration -- especially for those who have the means to frequent these events -- to forego the option.

It was their boycott that amplified the message of activists inside. As protesters chanted outside, Mitchell Gold (of furniture fame) was placing "Crisis," a book of 40 LGBT biographies he edited, directly into the hands of Gov. Tim Kaine and Vice President Joe Biden.

"Wait a minute," Biden said to Gold, "my wife has this book and she's reading it." Gold apparently had given Dr. Jill Biden the same book at the GLSEN event she headlined earlier this month.

Gold, who struggled mightily to come to terms with his own sexuality during adolescence, hopes reading the stories of what today's LGBT leaders went through in their youth will help reframe this debate for politicians.

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"It's easier for them to turn their backs on you and me," he told me. "But I have to believe that when people understand the harm that is caused to the 1.5 million LGBT teens in this country, it adds a whole different perspective."

Mitchell Gold's efforts, while laudable, would most likely have been tossed atop the trash heap of pleasantries that politicians routinely extend to donors at the dime-a-dozen fundraisers they attend. But based on the stand taken by a number of prominent LGBT dissenters, Democratic leaders might just have been paying attention Thursday.

What we need Washington to realize is something I heard John Berry, the highest ranking gay official in the Obama administration, proclaim at the Velvet Foundation event: "Our story is the American story!" he exclaimed, sweeping his clenched fist through the air. Seems so simple and yet it washed over me like a revelation. I guess that's because until very recently, America has swept our history under the rug. LGBT concerns weren't worthy of being reported on, they were only relevant to the national political framework insofar as they could whip up money or votes, and it was OK to meet with gays behind closed doors but standing up for them publicly was lunacy.

This coming Monday, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from the across the country will attend a White House reception to celebrate the birth of our equality movement 40 years ago. In front of LGBT advocates, the White House press corps, and a national audience, President Barack Obama - among the most eloquent of national leaders in our history - will have an opportunity to make our story the American story. And if he takes the invitation to help orient America on the path toward our equality, the arc of the nation's moral universe would further its bend in the just direction.