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View From Washington

View From Washington


For the last four years I have been proud to be part of a team at The Advocate that helped document an unimaginably historic time in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality - what a younger generation refers to as "queer rights" even as the term tweaks the ears of an older generation of activists.

From covering the opening salvo in the primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Iowa to relocating to Washington, D.C., to become part of the White House press corps, I have witnessed what has felt to me like a coming-of-age story in a movement for the basic dignity and humanity of a people.

In many ways I was simply the beneficiary of so many who have come before me -- people who have written and reported, protested and been arrested, and lost their loves, their livelihoods, and their lives in a struggle to simply be known and be seen without being criminalized or disgraced.

And to some extent, the journey of the passage of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal epitomizes just how far this movement has come and how far it has yet to go.

It is my firm belief based on all the information I've been privy to that in the early days of the Obama administration, many top White House aides saw a battle over repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" as a political liability -- an entanglement that would be a moral victory, to be sure, but a Pyrrhic one just the same.

Even after President Obama fought to keep those prophetic 32 words in his 2010 State of the Union address, the administration hoped to delay the vote until after the Pentagon report came out on December 1 -- safely after the midterms and a virtual guarantee that no vote would take place until 2011.

During the G-20 summit in June of last year, the president said something that confirmed my belief about the advice he was getting behind closed doors on "don't ask, don't tell." During a Q&A with reporters, he noted that he was going after both repeal and health care reform in spite of the fact that people said they were both bad politics.

"One of the interesting things that's happened over the last 18 months as president is for some reason people keep on being surprised when I do what I said I was going to do," Obama said. "So I say I'm going to reform our health care system and people think, well, gosh, that's not smart politics, maybe we should hold off. Or I say, we're going to move forward on "don't ask, don't tell," and somehow people say, well, why are you doing that, I'm not sure that's good politics."

I marveled at that off-the-cuff remark, believing it to be an unusually candid insight into the chatter with which he was surrounded. Remember for a second just how insular the White House is -- the president doesn't just randomly talk to folks. The "people" he talks to are either his advisers or other politicians and, apparently, those people were questioning whether pushing for repeal was a smart political move.

Only creatures of Washington filled with stale notions of an issue that had proved to be a political pariah 17 years ago could question the wisdom of doing something that consistently polled at around 70% and was supported by a solid majority of independents and conservatives alike, not to mention the fact that it was quite simply, in the president's own words, "the right thing to do."

In fact, the repeal provision was originally attached to the defense authorization bill specifically because no one -- including our congressional allies in the fight -- ever believed it could pass on its own merits. Pro-repeal legislators like Rep. Patrick Murphy and Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as senators Carl Levin and Joe Lieberman pushed to make it part of the defense funding bill in spite of White House and Pentagon objections to a pre-report vote. Successfully attaching the measure to a "must-pass" bill was the silver bullet, or so we thought.

No one ever imagined that a defense funding bill that's usually completed by the summer or fall at the latest would be pushed off until the lame-duck session -- effectively dooming a strategy that once seemed a sure thing.

And then the unthinkable happened: a confluence of factors conspired to make "don't ask, don't tell" repeal operable all on its own. Even as the administration labored to keep the issue out of the headlines prior to the midterms, a federal judge declared the law unconstitutional in mid October, creating an unprecedented maelstrom at the Defense Department as senior officials were forced to issue new regulations several times in the course of a single week.

The other conspirator in the destiny of repeal was the Pentagon report that ultimately highlighted an overwhelmingly positive survey of service members' attitudes about their lesbian and gay counterparts. For the vast majority of the troops, gays were a nonissue. Even many LGBT advocates -- having been burned so often by the government and the failed promises of politicians -- were shocked by the nature of the report.

Those two factors -- the courts and the report -- made a true believer of Defense secretary Robert Gates. He went from authoring a leaked memo to Rep. Ike Skelton in the spring of 2010 that nearly killed repeal to imploring and darn near begging Congress to pass the measure during the lame-duck.

"My greatest fear," Gates said repeatedly, "is that we have to be told that this law will be overturned by a court and we will be forced to implement it without any time for information or training or any of the other efforts that need to be undertaken to prepare us for such a change."

It was a remarkable twist of fate -- a measure that no one wanted to deal with, that seemed a nuisance, and that would never pass without some legislative jujitsu was suddenly viable in its own right.

The president needed repeal to restore his progressive credibility, the Defense secretary wanted it in order to retain some control over a process that would almost surely be imposed on the department by the courts. And a survey of unprecedented scope proved what LGBT advocates had been saying all along -- Washington was woefully behind the times on this issue.

None of this is to say that President Obama and his administration don't deserve credit for finally ending the discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Had he not included it in his State of the Union address, it would have never even been on the map in 2010. And absent the Pentagon's report -- a deliverable that the president insisted on -- Robert Gates and the military's top brass might never have believed repeal was doable in the midst of two wars.

But I can also tell you, as sure as I am sitting here writing this column, that the way this unfolded was not according to anyone's original plan.

"Don't ask, don't tell" repeal ultimately prevailed through a miraculous Hail Mary pass of a stand-alone bill because it was actually past its prime. It just took the revelations of a survey and the prodding of a court to push Washington past its own political homophobia.

Ironically, what many of the president's key advisers had originally tagged as a stumbling block has now become his one pristine win for the progressive base. Tax cuts went to everyone, including the richest segment of our country, in a move that some believe will establish the rates as a permanent fixture that shreds the middle-class fabric of this nation. The opportunity that was health care reform was lost to the lack of a public option. Wall Street reform was a sham in the eyes of many liberals. Key environmental legislation and immigration reform never got off the ground, though the heroic efforts of youth activists put the DREAM Act in play.

In fact, repealing the gay ban marks the one place where Obama didn't compromise the ideals of his progressive base. The question now is whether the lessons of the repeal battle will dawn a new day in the national fight for equality.

Will politicians and especially President Obama and his aides begin to fixate on the upsides of making strides toward equality for all LGBT Americans instead of obsessing about the downsides of battles lost years ago? In history we are taught that nations often prosecute the last war they were in rather than fighting the battle that's unfolding before their very eyes. But great leaders -- those who change the course of history -- are willing to turn away from the tangibles of the past to train their eyes on the potential of an amorphous but illimitable future.

Much is left to be done. Transgender individuals especially are at risk of chronic unemployment without a means of recourse for wrongful termination. Gay binational couples are still torn apart by the cruelty of a system that fails to view their families as legal entities. And simply put, our nation's laws continue to value the humanity of certain citizens while debasing that of others according to the expressions of their love.

As a mainstream reporter who began working a gay beat five years ago, I have struggled with whether to say the movement or our movement, should I write they or we -- was I covering this cause or was I part of it? I had always considered myself a journalist, but over the course of reporting many stories, I undoubtedly became an activist. In my book, journalists have always been activists who advocate for truth and fairness, but in this case, my measure of truth and fairness was rooted in the fact that I was reporting for a constituency in search of justice. This measure did not obligate me to give equal time in my stories to antigay forces; it only called me to use every tool at my disposal to give readers my best estimation of what I thought was really happening.

When I went back home for the holidays in 2009 and reassessed the year, I was struck by how very little progress had been made on LGBT issues by this president and the 111th Congress despite all the advantages they had and the promises they made. With the midterms already looming, it seemed as though I was watching the opportunity of lifetime -- one that those before me had literally given their lives for -- being squandered. At that point, I decided that I would no longer attempt to walk a line of objectivity in my weekly columns, that it was incumbent upon me to say exactly what I believed to be true given my unique vantage point to the inner workings of Washington. I didn't want to walk away from this job wondering what if I had been more candid, what if I had let more people know what I was seeing and how I interpreted that input.

I have always viewed my work as a collective effort, and I owe a debt of gratitude to The Advocate for moving me to Washington when I asked to go. But equally as important, I would especially like to thank my readers for making me relevant.

Like every good lesbian who's lived in the San Francisco Bay area for a time, I have found the writings of Audre Lorde to be some of the most transformative and inspirational of my life. But the following sentiment in particular has informed my work as a journalist more than perhaps any other I have carried with me:

"This is why the work is so important. Its power doesn't lie in the me that lives in the words so much as in the heart's blood pumping behind the eye that is reading, the muscle behind the desire that is sparked by the word -- hope as a living state that propels us, open-eyed and fearful into all the battles of our lives. And some of those battles we do not win.

"But some we do."

It is with a hint of sadness that I write these last few words, for I view them as both a final chapter in my time with The Advocate and a symbolic end to a journey I began 15 years ago as a journalist proper.

But I will continue to write into a new space at that better suits the landscape of my own evolution.

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