View to Washington: Bill and Barack

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com July 17 2009 12:00 AM ET

When he took the stage at the NAACP centennial celebration Thursday night, President Barack Obama delivered to us the passionate candidate we have been missing.

Discrimination still thrives today, he thundered, before painting a broad and inclusive picture of the indignities and those who suffer them.

"By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and gender," Obama said. "By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion for simply kneeling down to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights.

"On the 45th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act," he continued, "discrimination cannot stand. Not on account of color or gender; how you worship or who you love. Prejudice has no place in the United States of America."

This was the clarity we have been craving, the tenacity that has faltered amid his over-handled, obsessively scripted presidency.

The night Barack Obama was elected to office, I imagined that here was a man who was uniquely situated to tear down divisions, not just among black and white, have and have-nots, but even among the hearts of those who have lost their way in the search for dignity. Why people find joy or comfort or necessity in denigrating another's humanity in order to exalt their own, I will never know. Perhaps Obama, I thought, could conjoin the country in common cause.

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Instead, President Obama has spent more time sowing the seeds of unity abroad than he has here at home. The paucity of inclusive words has been palpable, in part, because they flowed so freely on the trail. In speech after speech, whether in stadiums, gyms, or homes, candidate Obama repeatedly dared to speak our name, weaving us into the fabric of America's greater conscience.

But the promise of last November for LGBT people is still just that, a promise. Surely, that's the reality Christine Quinn was keenly aware of when she gave a different type of speech in New York this week, to a small audience in the privacy of a living room.

Quinn passed up promise for action in her remarks. She recounted visiting the White House on St. Patrick's Day and introducing herself to the president as the first Irish, female, and gay speaker of the New York City Council. Quinn asked him to advance LGBT issues and, in particular, to keep an eye on some Defense of Marriage Act challenges that were just hitting the radar in March.

"He kept saying, 'Don't worry. By the end of my term, you'll be happy.' Well, it's not actually about being happy. And I'm not going to wait till the end of anything," she told people assembled at the fund-raiser for the LGBT March on Washington in October.

For those of you who don't know Speaker Quinn, she's the second-most powerful person in New York City (behind Michael Bloomberg, of course) and a seasoned politician who navigates the brass knuckles of the city with aplomb. Her remarks were notable for their candor and forcefulness, which were surely rooted in the political meltdown she witnessed this year.

"What we want is results and we want them now and we don't want to be told any longer that we have to wait," she said. "'Cause look, in Albany they said they couldn't do marriage at the beginning of the session, they had to get other business done. And now, it's exploded in Albany. If they kept their promise on day one like they said, we wouldn't be where we are."

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What's so ironic is that the other person who made news this week actually tried to keep his promise to gays on day one but retreated: Bill Clinton.

You may have missed this under-the-radar rollout, but former president Bill Clinton was quoted as telling someone in a rope line, "I'm basically in support [of same-sex marriage]." Only a politician as nimble as Clinton could have managed to unleash this intel without grabbing front-page headlines. Certainly if he had given a speech or granted an interview, the resulting media scrum would have dogged Obama for days. Apparently, the last Democratic president wanted to speak his truth without casting a shadow over the current one.

Naturally, every self-respecting LGBT person wished Clinton could have found his True North on the matter before he signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. But then again, no one ever really believed he opposed marriage equality. Call it craven politics, but everyone knows Clinton signed DOMA into law before the '96 election to avoid a potential GOP family-values offensive at the ballot box.

What's troubling is that Clinton is not all that different from Obama -- who also picked up a pen in 1996 and on a candidate questionnaire wrote : "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." At some point, he clearly concluded that marriage stance wouldn't fly on the national stage.

Bill Clinton's revelation this week reminds us that what's in a president's heart only matters in so far as it guides his or her actions. Barack Obama may have resurrected the promise he holds for LGBT people as well as countless others who stand on the margins, but as Quinn forewarned: Promise is both the currency and casualty of politics.