Hope and History
BY Michael Joseph Gross
April 26 2010 2:00 PM ET
We began to see Obama differently. As the press took stock of his first 100 days, The Washington Post published an op-ed by Richard Socarides, a former adviser to Bill Clinton on gay issues, who called out President Obama’s inaction. A Post copy editor suggested the headline, “Where’s Our ‘Fierce Advocate’?” -- which inspired the title of a new regular feature on the MSNBC show hosted by Rachel Maddow, one of many journalists who began to ask, relentlessly, why the president dropped the ball on the Defense of Marriage Act, DADT, and other gay rights issues.
During a May 18 White House press briefing, Kerry Eleveld, this magazine’s Washington correspondent, asked press secretary Robert Gibbs what the president was doing to push for repeal of DOMA, and Gibbs had no answer. Soon White House correspondents from ABC, NBC, and Time.com were joining Eleveld in hammering Gibbs with questions about gay policies. What was Obama doing? Why not more, and why not faster?
Dan Choi, an articulate, telegenic Iraq war veteran and Arabic linguist who was booted from the Army after he founded Knights Out, a group of gay West Point alumni, became a leading spokesman for the movement this summer. He says a few TV producers told him, “We’re so grateful to you, because everyone says we don’t criticize the president enough, and this story lets us go after him” -- without expending any real political capital with the White House or with viewers.
Online, rhetoric reached helium pitch. Frustrated on the one hand with inaction in the White House and on the Hill, and on the other with what they saw as unacceptably incremental strategies pursued by gay rights groups, some activists vented in the virtual realm. One group wrote a document called “The Dallas Principles,” demanding “full civil rights for the LGBT community.” (Visitors to the website are offered two opportunities for action: They can sign an electronic petition asking House speaker Nancy Pelosi to expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBT people, and they can download and print an image of pink flip-flops to send to the White House, asking President Obama not to “flip-flop” on DOMA.) On his blog, Bill Clinton’s gay former adviser David Mixner suggested a gay march on Washington for October -- an idea that was taken up by activists Cleve Jones and Dustin Lance Black. The website for the march features a blog with statements such as “I want it all and I want it now” and one opportunity for action: a video with instructions for making YouTube clips (tagged “LGBTMeetOnTheMall”) of yourself reading a scripted statement in support of equality. In the campaign’s first 23 days, YouTube videos were made by a total of 27 people -- most of whom identified themselves as straight allies.
On June 11 the Justice Department filed a brief making vigorous defense of DOMA in a California court. The White House first defended the brief, then apologized for it, but many in the movement erupted in fury. Prominent gay Democrats, including Mixner, millionaire WordPerfect founder Bruce Bastian, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders civil rights project director Mary Bonauto, and blogger Andy Towle, boycotted a major Democratic National Committee fund-raiser where Vice President Joe Biden gave the keynote address.
Pressure got results. The next week the president issued a memorandum granting same-sex partners of federal employees some benefits, but it didn’t include health insurance, which Robert Gibbs said would require an act of Congress. Then, to mark Pride Month, the White House held a reception for 200 prominent gays, from Quark founder Tim Gill to Vogue’s André Leon Talley. (One guest says the White House official who invited him also asked if he’d “behave.”) The president gave an impassioned speech, inviting his guests to pressure him, and drew a dramatic analogy: “I know that many in this room don’t believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.”
The following week brought even more signs that the administration was beginning to budge. Gibbs announced the goal of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” by the end of the first term -- the first time the White House had named a deadline for repeal. A few days later Defense secretary Robert Gates declared that his department was considering interim measures to address the ban (which might include issuing an executive order to halt DADT investigations until the policy can be reviewed).
“The die is cast,” Socarides says. “This administration seems to respond to pressure on this issue. So, as a community, we have to have our own timetable, and we have to be focused like a laser beam on getting Congress and the White House to act on our schedule.”
I asked more than a dozen leaders of the movement how that can happen -- how we can move from receptions to repeal -- and their answers continually sent me back to one line from the president’s speech at the party in the East Room: Obama described the Stonewall rebellion as a moment when “these folks who had been marginalized rose up to challenge not just how the world saw them but also how they saw themselves.” The remark revealed, perhaps unintentionally, that this movement can make no meaningful progress until we confront an enemy that no one -- least of all the president -- can save us from.