By Michelangelo Signorile
Originally published on Advocate.com October 22 2009 1:40 PM ET
The National Equality March, which Time magazine estimated brought roughly 200,000 people to the National Mall earlier this month, was such a huge success even before it happened that we must plan another one — even if it never happens. That’s because we’ve learned a few things in this first year of Barack Obama’s presidency.
First off, this administration responds to pressure, and unlike the previous Democratic administration, these White House officials cannot contain our discontent by going to groups like the Human Rights Campaign or politicians like Barney Frank (more on that and the reasons why farther down).
They want to keep LGBTs at arm’s length, but we continue to make that difficult, and we force them to move — ever so reticently — each time we have applied pressure.
Sure, it was dispiriting to realize that after electing Obama we have to make a lot of noise to get even a little attention, but hopefully we’ve gotten over that: They’re politicians, they must be pressured, and there is absolutely no downside to pushing them hard.
The successes of the march began when the president decided to address our issues days before the march, agreeing to speak at HRC’s annual dinner. Just as he decided to commemorate Stonewall back in June, inviting gays to the White House after much public criticism of the administration’s dragging its feet, the president was responding to the marchers’ criticisms. The speech didn’t outline any new details on how the president would follow through on his promises, but he did spend a bit of capital just by speaking to a gay group — and doing so with much more passion than any time before, and saying a few things more emphaticall y— and sending a message via the televised coverage to the mainstream and to the opponents of LGBT rights.
The White House scrambled in other ways too, among them naming an openly gay ambassador to New Zealand. Nothing big, but evidence of a scramble and our pressure working. Even Barney Frank’s actions, coming on my radio program and declaring the march “useless” a few days before it happened, were an indication of our success. I don’t believe he truly thinks marches are “useless” (and he later clarified this on Joy Behar’s show, after the march), but he was willing to take some hits — and perhaps even lose some fund-raising dollars from angry gays and lesbians across the country — in order to show his loyalty to the administration, attempting to give the White House some cover.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, feeling the pressure, sent his own letters to the administration, demanding action on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” endorsed the march in a letter to organizers, and met with the organizers to talk about issues. Within days of the march, Reid confirmed that he, a Mormon, told the march organizers that it was harmful and wrong that his church backed California’s Proposition 8.
That same week we got the news from the highest-ranking openly gay official, John Berry in the Office of Personnel Management, that the White House is talking to Joe Lieberman about leading the repeal of DADT We’re hearing that it might happen next spring. There’s also buzz that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act will be voted on in House by year’s end and signed by the beginning of next year, on the heels of the hate-crimes bill’s passage. And after The Advocate inquired about antigay ballot measures in Maine and Washington, the White House put out a statement condemning antigay referenda (They didn’t mention the two states specifically, again being very reticent, but still, we can use this statement to our advantage).
A week after the march, a Justice Department official gave a speech saying that protecting LGBT people will be very much a part of the civil rights division’s mission, and Obama nominated an openly lesbian Minneapolis police sergeant as a U.S. marshal. A week and half after the march, the Housing and Urban Development secretary announced that HUD programs will ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Health and Human Services Secretary announced a grant to create a resource center for LGBT seniors.
Sure, the gay groups gave the administration these and other items on a wish list back in January. But the timing of these announcements within days of the march is obvious. None of it is anything major nor, on the big issues, very definitive. But each time we’ve applied pressure we’ve gotten a little bit more out of them and they know they can’t hold us back.
The reason the administration can’t contain our discontent is less about this White House than it is about dramatic change in society, certainly since the last Democratic president was in office. With blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, satellite radio, 24-7 cable news and all the other new media, it’s impossible for establishment gay groups or prominent gay politicians to contain us.
In the Clinton years, HRC and Barney Frank defended the administration just as they are now. There is nothing new about the roles they’ve taken, but they can no longer effectively provide cover for the White House or the Democratic leadership. And let’s get something out of the way: No one, including me, is questioning their commitment to LGBT rights, just disagreeing with their strategy. Barney Frank is loyal to the Democratic Party and loyal to the president. But I’ve no doubt that he believes that that loyalty will pay off for us all.
Same with HRC, often pursing a strategy of access at all costs, including compromising on its beliefs and even going back on its word for the sake of politics. (Let’s not forget the group’s ENDA about-face, backing a bill in 2007 that cut out transgender people after president Joe Solmonese had once said the group would never support a bill that did so.) It’s a strategy, but one that many of us very much disagreed with at this time. It’s a strategy that many people who have worked and still work on Capitol Hill and in Democratic politics disagree with as well, as much as HRC and its supporters try to present the criticism of them as coming from out-of-the-Beltway know-nothings.
HRC has had a rough time since the beginning of the Obama administration, trying to figure out how to operate and how to utilize the grass roots and Net roots while also maintaining access. It’s been clumsy at best, disastrous at worst. Any objective critic would conclude the group has not seemed stable. It criticized the president early on regarding Rick Warren, only to fall in line as if bludgeoned by the White House. The group soon became a full-on apologist, with Solmonese going into a meeting with the administration last spring after concerns of White House inaction on LGBT rights mounted, and coming out and saying the White House had a “plan,” though he couldn’t tell us the details
But further criticism of the White House over the next month, on the Web and in the mainstream media, built dramatically. Then, in June, reporter Jason Bellini on The Daily Beast claimed that unnamed sources on the Hill confirmed that HRC had told members of Congress that “don’t ask, don’t tell” wasn’t a priority as HRC pursued an incrementalist approach, pushing for hate crimes and ENDA first. HRC denied the story (though I had an on-the-record source on my show, Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center, saying the same thing), and soon went from apologist to critic almost overnight, even creating a “no excuses” campaign and seeming to agree with the grass roots entirely on Obama. Solmonese even called for Obama to issue a stop-loss order to end the discharges and to move on DADT.
Then came this month’s HRC dinner. The White House was looking for cover. Obama was invited to speak at the march, but the White House wasn’t about to acknowledge the protest. HRC was happy to have the president speak at the dinner, and really, it’s the right thing to give the president a forum and hear him out. Certainly it was also good for the organization and its profile to have the president speak. But perhaps the White House wanted more in return for giving HRC that kind of visibility and legitimacy, particularly since it hoped to contain the criticisms from the march protesters.
For whatever reason, HRC’s Solmonese did a 180 again and released what has come to be called the “2017 Letter” days before the speech, saying we shouldn’t judge the administration until that year. The group tried to backtrack after an uproar, but its explanation has not sufficed. Even on my radio program Solmonese couldn’t offer up clear reasoning as to why, from a PR perspective alone, he’d put the year 2017 in a letter like that. The only explanation, many believe, is that the White House asked the group to put that out there, and HRC complied.
HRC’s response to Obama’s speech backs up this theory. Only HRC seemed to think the speech was so “unprecedented” that it didn’t need any criticism, though the speech offered nothing new in terms of a timetable on any of the many promises the president made both before and after the election. Institutions as mainstream as Time magazine and the Washington Post editorial board agreed with many of the marchers who were quoted in the papers the next day discussing the speech, whose opinions could be summarized by the Time headline: “All Talk, No Action.”
HRC was once again apologizing for an administration. But unlike in the ’90s, the group’s point of view wasn’t what was reflected in the media. The blog posts criticizing Obama continued — this time aimed at HRC too. The radio broadcasts went on. The cable debates didn’t stop. All you had to do was tune in or sign on to any media to find out what gays really thought — and it wasn’t what HRC thought.
The group has its work cut out for it — both in trying to bridge the divide between the organization and much of LGBT America and regaining the trust it needs from the grass roots and the Net roots if it wants to work together. It can start by really representing the mainstream LGBT thinking on Obama and his promises instead of heaping praise on the president and falling back on its access-at-all-costs strategy, which has never worked.
And HRC should acknowledge to the White House that the grass roots is very organized, isn’t happy, and will be marching again. HRC can be a facilitator of that truth rather than apologizing for the administration. Rather than looking increasingly irrelevant, our big D.C. lobbying group could actually make itself look much stronger.
The march in fact has only made us all stronger as a movement. We were able to organize in a few months, using new media, and got 200,000 people to D.C. without spending much on traditional advertising. David Mixner is to be lauded for his passion and putting the idea out there. Cleve Jones, for his vision and his steadfastness at doing it quickly and keeping the costs down to a mere $150,000. Robin McGehee, Kip Williams, and all the other young activists, for tirelessly organizing the event and using the Net roots so skillfully.
We now know it can be done successfully on short notice and for little money. That means a couple of things: We need to continue making a lot of noise — online, but also getting into the streets and protesting everywhere. And we need to march again on Washington — or at least let them know we’re prepared to do so if we don’t see some real action, real soon.