I felt myself bracing last Saturday at Netroots Nation as I sat and listened to Speaker Nancy Pelosi respond to a question about passing ENDA in front of an audience of roughly 1,000 or more progressive bloggers.
"I can't give you a time, but I can tell you that it is a priority," Pelosi said. "To do it this year, we have to finish 'don't ask, don't tell.' And hopefully we can do them both this year."
The direct action group GetEqual had been scheming about possible actions during speeches by Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that day. Pelosi's speech took place that morning - Reid's would be in the afternoon - and ENDA turned out to be the very first question asked of Pelosi during her Q&A.
Never was I so aware of the prospect that LGBT activists could hijack an event to the detriment of the movement, depriving other swaths of progressives who were equally as concerned about their respective areas of interest and craved answers from getting them.
Though Pelosi failed to promise a vote on ENDA before the end of this Congressional session - a commitment the GetEqual folks surely hungered for - her answer elicited only a single cry from their cohort.
"Move on ENDA now!" cried one member of the group seated at the very front table of the room.
"Your impatience is justified," Pelosi responded.
Of course, the scene at Pelosi's speech wasn't nearly so dramatic as what transpired later that afternoon when the questioner for Reid's Q&A handed the senator the West Point ring that belonged to Dan Choi along with his discharge papers from the Army. But before delving into that piece of activism, I think it's important for the LGBT community to remember who was in the room.
They were allies. They were student DREAM Activists who have begun to "come out" about their status as undocumented immigrants so that their identities are not invisible to their peers who have had the good fortune of being born in this country. They were environmentalists who learned just days earlier that Democrats had abandoned the energy bill for the remainder of this Congress. They were many constituencies who watched the promise of health care reform dwindle to despair as major goals like providing a public option were scrapped.
So if a group of LGBT activists had stolen the show so to speak, robbed
other progressives of their opportunities to hear directly from the
Speaker and Majority Leader, they could have easily alienated a room
full of people who would otherwise pull for LGBT equality.
GetEqual averted this potential disaster with a well planned, dignified
action that simultaneously elicited a personal commitment from Reid to
Dan Choi that he would finish the job on DADT repeal and engendered the heartfelt
support of everyone in the room who has now been personally touched by
the exchange. Instead of fomenting a room full of hostility, the action
cultivated an army of converts who are now ever more invested in the
fate of "don't ask, don't tell."
Though some have criticized
this action as mere spectacle, I wholeheartedly believe it raised the
stakes for Sen. Reid among a much broader base of progressives. And he
now carries with him Dan Choi's ring, something I'm certain he hopes to
have the pleasure of returning during a highly orchestrated photo-op
arranged by his press office.
In other Netroots news, one
of Obama's top 2008 campaign advisers, Steve
Hildebrand, went on record
for the first time saying he believes
the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and that he's "very
perplexed" by the administration's continued effort to defend the law in
"I'd like to see the president and Attorney General
Holder announce that they will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage
Act and to agree with the judge's findings in the Massachusetts' court
case," he said of U.S. judge Joseph Tauro's ruling earlier this month
that DOMA is unconstitutional.
Though we're all aware of this
decision, allow me to reiterate that Tauro found DOMA didn't even meet
the "rational basis" test for denying federal recognition to same-sex
couples - in legal terms, that's the most deferential test, or the
easiest test, for a law to meet in order to pass as justifiable.
did not say this in my interview with him, but I would hazard to guess
he believes this is precisely the type of situation where elections
should have consequences. He backs the administration's approach to
ending DADT because he believes the law cannot be repealed without
enlisting the support of the Pentagon.
By contrast, beginning to dismantle DOMA does not necessitate vote wrangling or building momentum
or corralling 60 senators to overcome a filibuster. Instead it only
requires an administration led by a man who has called the law
discriminatory and ran on a platform of repealing it to come down on the
side of equality.
In other words, it is one law that unnecessarily harms and targets an
aggrieved minority that can be declared unconstitutional by the president because it is. Judge Tauro's decision left no doubt of
Critics of this approach often say the Justice
Department cannot pick and choose which laws it defends and that, if the
Obama administration did so, it would set a terrible precedent for
future administrations. But as Hildebrand noted, it is not the duty of
the Justice Department to defend unconstitutional laws and, moreover, no
future administration is going to sit around pondering what the Obama
administration did before making key decisions. I somehow doubt that
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney looked to the Clinton administration for
guidance on major decisions at Justice. WWCD (What Would Clinton Do?) was clearly not their standard.
On Friday, Judy
Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour reported
a piece about disillusionment
among the Democratic base heading into the midterms and over
the weekend the Associated Press reported
a similar mood
at the Netroots Nation conference.
article noted that former White House environmental adviser Van Jones counseled the bloggers to have "patience."
"Change is still possible,"
If President Obama wonders why some LGBT advocates are
so impatient, he might heed the advice of Hildebrand, who is simply asking
him and his administration to live up to the promise he ran on. And
that's something he could do at any given moment where DOMA is
concerned. It's never too soon to make history.