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View from Washington: Legacies

View from Washington: Legacies


I hate to ruin my cynical journalistic cred by asserting that things are starting to come up roses for the LGBT movement, but the past couple weeks have offered some flowery tinges of spring amid the autumn chill.

I hate to ruin my cynical journalistic cred by asserting that things are starting to come up roses for the LGBT movement, but the past couple weeks have offered some flowery tinges of spring amid the autumn chill.

Shortly after President Barack Obama pledged at the HRC dinner to end "don't ask, don't tell" -- which quite frankly was nothing he hadn't said before -- we got the first real confirmation that substantive conversations on the policy are taking place between members on the Hill and the White House from John Berry, the administration's highest-ranking LGBT official.

Berry's revelation that the White House was in direct discussions with Sen.Joe Lieberman signaled to me for the first time that the tide was turning away from slow-walking repeal toward actual strategizing about it. I continue to hear more along those lines, not least of which is the fact that President Obama finally nominated someone to fill the post that oversees "don't ask, don't tell" within the Pentagon, the undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

Though no one has publicly come out and said that the nominee, retired general Clifford Stanley, favors overturning the policy, insiders have long considered filling the position a must before moving forward with repeal. Let's face it, if President Obama is serious about ending the military's gay ban, placing a detractor in that post would be entirely counterintuitive. Surely Stanley's confirmation hearings will offer some insight into his positions.

Word also came that Senate hearings on the policy, after being bumped by health reform in September and October, appear to be in the offing for November based on comments made Friday by Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Then there's the parade of agency advances -- from HUD working to ensure equal treatment for LGBT Americans in federal housing programs to Health and Human Services forming the first resource center for older LGBT folks. In addition, the HIV travel and immigration ban is well on its way to being entirely dismantled. While none of this is as sexy as passing legislation, it is the substantive nuts-and-bolts work of building a foundation for equality.

Just before Obama's HRC speech two weeks ago, a political analyst defended slow movement on LGBT issues by explaining to me that Washington was in the "process" of moving toward equality, which struck me as a glass-half-full view at that moment. But by the time Congress put its stamp on hate-crimes legislation this past week -- the very first major pro-LGBT measure to be sent to a president's desk -- I started to wonder if she had a point.

I think the question for many is, How long will that process take -- months ... years ... two terms (if there even is a second one)?

Former president Bill Clinton is proof that the process has some merit, even if it yields results a little later than many would have liked. While activists routinely debate his legacy and whether stacking up a series of LGBT "firsts" was good enough when DADT and DOMA continue their choke hold on equality, he is definitely emerging as an honest critic of his own policies and even an advocate for change.

Beyond the fact that he now stands squarely in the marriage equality camp, this week he sent a letter to Lane Hudson -- the same LGBT advocate who stood up and challenged Clinton for answers about "don't ask, don't tell" during his address at Netroots Nation in August. Hudson took some heat for shouting uninvited questions at a former president from the crowd and, accordingly, wrote an apology letter to Clinton that he published on The Huffington Post.

To Hudson's surprise, he received a handwritten note from Clinton this week. Although he did not want to betray the confidence of the former president by publishing the entirety of its contents, Hudson did share several lines.

"I recently said I had changed my position on gay marriage and will look for more opportunities to advance the repeal of DOMA," Clinton wrote, adding, "I will be there as you ask on these and other human rights issues."

To Hudson, the missive was an opening for dialogue that could lead to more visibility on LGBT issues from Clinton and, ultimately, make more room for politicians presently in office to stake out new, more progressive stances.

Talk may not be enough for many activists, especially from President Obama, who has more than just a bully pulpit at his disposal to effect change. But stoking public discourse and raising the national consciousness on LGBT issues does have ripple effects. Just look at this week's announcement from University of Alabama at Birmingham that the institution -- Birmingham's largest employer -- would extend same-sex domestic-partner benefits to its employees.

Or take a development in my own hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. - a conservative, largely GOP enclave within the Democratic- leaning state. When The Grand Rapids Press editorialized for the repeal of DADT this week, I most certainly blinked with wonder several times before trusting that my eyes had not betrayed me.

As I watch the ceaseless debate about just how much President Obama has accomplished both here at home and on the world stage and whether he is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, I am keenly aware that it parallels the deliberation among LGBT activists. Do you reward the potentiality of what Obama might accomplish in hopes of strengthening his hand to achieve those goals? Or do you fold your arms with skepticism until he delivers?

The difference between the two discussions is that the LGBT community will issue a verdict on his presidency much more quickly than the world at large.

While historians, economists, and pundits will analyze for years the efficacy of Obama's policies on domestic and foreign fronts, the military will either continue forcing select men and women to lie or it will honor their truth; LGBT Americans in 29 states will either have legal recourse for discriminatory firings or they will remain the pawns of their boss's bias; and the federal government will either honor the loving unions of all couples in this nation or it will persist in mocking the sacred vows of some.

Clinton's record on LGBT equality might forever be viewed in shades of gray, but Obama's legacy is more likely to present as either a Technicolor success or a muted failure.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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