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What Gives in Washington?

What Gives in Washington?


As the Obama administration goes to court in support of "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, Michelangelo Signorile wonders if it's gay leaders who are to blame.

The disappointment many of us felt with President Obama over the Rick Warren debacle last January boiled over into full-fledged rage in June, when the president's own Justice Department, using the kind of language that would make Warren proud, tried to block a legal challenge to the antigay Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

But in our rage, it's important to remember that the president's progress -- or lack thereof -- on gay issues is as much a reflection of the private advice and public stands of those gay advocates who have access to the White House as it is a product of the intentions and actions of the administration.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay political group, gave the administration cover early on -- largely remaining silent, or even defending the White House, while grassroots activists and pro-gay media figures and bloggers protested the silence out of Washington. In May, HRC's Joe Solmonese came out of a meeting with administration officials saying that the president had a "plan" for moving forward on gay rights legislation. No one else has been informed of this plan, and it's unclear if action on DOMA was part of it.

But it appears that the Justice Department's DOMA brief in June -- along with a charge a week earlier on the website The Daily Beast that HRC was cutting deals with the White House and accepting its inaction on "don't ask, don't tell" (an allegation HRC calls a lie) -- seems to have nudged the Human Rights Campaign to be more vocal. In response to the DOMA brief, Solmonese sent a strongly worded letter to the president that actually reminded Obama that we are "human beings" as it criticized the brief's arguments.

But the big question remains: How far will HRC go in keeping the pressure on the president, and did the cover the group provided early on give the administration the sense that the gay movement would just lie down and get trampled?

In its brief, intended to block a legal challenge to California's Proposition 8 and DOMA filed last December by California couple Arthur Smelt and Christopher Hammer, the Justice Department stated that, "Section 3 of DOMA does not distinguish among persons of different sexual orientations, but rather it limits federal benefits to those who have entered into the traditional form of marriage."

In other words, the administration is arguing that gay people, like anybody else, can get married if they want-as long as it's to someone of the opposite sex! Thus, gay people are not discriminated against.

The idea that Barack Obama, a man who ran on a platform of near-full inclusiveness for LGBT people, would actually argue that the best way for us to achieve our rights is, in essence, to go straight, is pure insanity. Until now we thought this kind of ugly, virulently antigay way of thinking could come only from the far reaches of the religious right and, for the purpose of expediency, from the mouth of our most recent president, George W. Bush. Yet here it is, in a brief submitted by Obama's Justice Department.

The administration claims that it has to defend the law -- even as the president is intent on overturning DOMA, as he promised on the campaign trail: "As it generally does with existing statutes, the Justice Department is defending the law on the books in the court. The president has said he wants to see a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage ActaEUR|. However, until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system."

That's similar to the administration's defense of Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who in May wrote in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court that "don't ask, don't tell" is "rational" for the sake of "unit cohesion." Mind you, this is the same Elena Kagan who, as dean of Harvard Law School, spoke out against DADT and opposed military recruiting on the school campus.

Even if the White House does have to defend a law with which it disagrees -- and that obligation has been disputed by some legal experts -- does it have to do it with such ferocity, giving opponents loads of ammunition, so that in spouting their malevolent homophobia the bigots have only to point to the Democratic president for validation?

Why on earth would Obama do such a thing? Some speculate that administration officials just aren't focused on DOMA and that, after allowing Bush holdover and devout Mormon W. Scott Simpson to file the brief, they didn't thoroughly review his argument. Others posit that in the cases of DOMA and DADT, the White House is purposely putting forth baseless and incoherent arguments because it doesn't want a court ruling at this time (particularly one that could result in a setback for LGBT rights).

That last is a particularly generous hypothesis, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that it's true. The administration still would be guilty of enormous political ineptitude: for not realizing the boost it's giving right-wing zealots and for its tone-deaf approach to gay supporters over the past several months -- from Rick Warren's inaugural invitation to the president's silence as state after state passed marriage equality. As HRC eventually asked, why doesn't the president send a bill to Congress to repeal DOMA -- thus assuring people that he wants to overturn it, even if he has to defend it while it's still on the books?

We all understand that things take time. The president's been in office for only half a year, and we know that posturing and political jockeying are large parts of the Washington game. But the greater concern is that gay people have dropped off Obama's radar entirely, while the Rick Warrens of the world are very much in his line of vision. There are ways to make a constituency feel better about your intentions, even as you drag your feet for political reasons. Obama hasn't done even that.

That's the reason why, beginning just a few weeks into this administration, I became so outspoken and critical of it. I've taken numerous angry calls on my radio show from listeners, including many LGBT people, who defend the president, arguing that he's got a lot on his plate, that he needs to go slowly on our issues, and that he will eventually follow through on his promises. Sure, I've replied, and I agree, overturning DADT -- or even stopping the discharges-and repealing DOMA are complicated processes. But, come on, there's really no acceptable excuse for this complete lack of passion -- this silence -- from the president on our issues.

Back in March, Richard Socarides, a former Clinton administration staffer, came on my program to talk about some of the gay issues Obama would be facing. He urged patience and expressed his confidence in the president. But just two months later,

Socarides wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post headlined, "Where's Our 'Fierce Advocate'?" (referring to Obama's self-described stance on gay issues). Socarides's patience had run out.

It's good to see that HRC's patience is running thin as well. But the damage of accommodation has already been done. The pressure now has got to be much harder and much tougher. Instead of telling us that everything is OK while prioritizing issues according to its own plan, HRC needs to let the administration know the temperature of this community and our allies -- which right now is white-hot -- and help the White House figure out a way to simmer things down. Ultimately, that will require getting the president to speak out forcefully on our issues -- and to fulfill his promise of full civil rights for gay men and lesbians.

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Michelangelo Signorile