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Dan Savage: Was Obama a One-Night Stand?

Dan Savage: Was Obama a One-Night Stand?


It wasn't love at first sight, but author Dan Savage warmed up to Barack Obama. Now he's wondering if all the promises the candidate whispered in his ear were just to get him into the electoral sack.

COMMENTARY: We could start with the betrayals and the slights -- the Reverend Rick Warren, 265 (and counting) gay men and lesbians kicked out of the military since Barack Obama was sworn in, the now-infamous DOMA brief that compared gay marriage to incest and pedophilia -- but maybe we should start by remembering the good times.

Hey, remember when Barack Obama couldn't get his tongue any further up our butts?

Remember when he practically spooned Melissa Etheridge during the Logo-Human Rights Campaign debate? Remember when he positioned himself to the left of Hillary Clinton on the Defense of Marriage Act? While Clinton came out in favor of a partial repeal, Obama said he favored -- and would fight for -- a complete repeal, and described DOMA as "abhorrent."

That was pretty sweet.

Then there was Barack Obama's open letter to the gay community. "Equality is a moral imperative," candidate Obama wrote, before reiterating his promise to repeal DOMA. He also promised to end "don't ask, don't tell," to pressure Congress to pass the Matthew Shepard hate-crimes act, and to lift the HIV travel ban. And then this line in particular jumped out at me, as it must have for other gay parents: "As your President, I will use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws."

But the highlight of the campaign for me came during the vice-presidential debate. An Obama-Biden administration would support civil unions for same-sex couples, Joe Biden said, adding that there should be "no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint" between same-sex and opposite-sex couples (except for the "marriage/civil unions" distinction). When Sarah Palin said that she didn't support same-sex marriage either and that she agreed with Biden that the federal government shouldn't "do anything to prohibit" visitation or other rights, Biden moved in for the kill: "I take her at her word, obviously, that she thinks there should be no civil rights distinction, none whatsoever, between a committed gay couple and a committed heterosexual couple."

Ah, those were good times.

But then Obama was sworn in under Rick Warren's porcine gaze and the "fierce urgency of now" quickly morphed, in Andrew Sullivan's damning turn of phrase, into the "fierce urgency of whenever." Never mind that gay people are being turned away from their partners' bedsides during medical emergencies now. Never mind that people are being kicked out of the military now. Never mind that Arkansas banned adoptions by same-sex couples on the very same day that Obama was elected. (Gosh, where's that bully pulpit when you need it?) The man who wasn't afraid to appeal directly to us for our votes as a candidate -- and certainly wasn't shy about asking us for our dollars -- couldn't be bothered to acknowledge the promises he had made to us and seemed to greatly resent being asked to actually honor them.

The difference between candidate Obama and President Obama crystallized for me when NBC's Brian Williams asked the president if "gay and lesbian couples who wish to marry ... have a friend in the White House?" The comfort candidate Obama demonstrated with gay people and issues was gone. I don't remember exactly what the president said, but I will never forget the look on his face. Judging from his pained and slightly annoyed expression, you would have thought that Williams put the question to him in a suppository form.

Have you ever been introduced to someone with whom you'd had a torrid one-night stand and he acted like he didn't know you? "Don't know me?" you're tempted to say in a loud voice. "Honey, you ate my ass."

Could Barack Obama be that one-night stand?

I started screaming and yelling about Barack weeks before his Department of Justice chose to celebrate the beginning of Gay Pride Month by defending DOMA, leaning on every bigoted argument against marriage equality that Pat Robertson ever advanced. Back in April, in a Salon piece I wrote marking the president's first 100 days in office, I gave him a D-minus on gay issues. A few weeks later, when I was on MSNBC discussing Obama's first comments about gay marriage since taking office (a lame joke delivered at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner), I revised that grade downward: F.

Then came the DOMA brief, and all hell broke loose on the blogosphere and outside two gay fund-raisers for the Democratic National Committee. But the screaming and yelling online -- a unique moment of unanimity among bloggers John Aravosis, Andy Towle, Pam Spaulding, Andrew Sullivan, Michelangelo Signorile, and Joe Jervis -- was nothing compared to the screaming and yelling in my kitchen.

Anyone who wonders why I'm so down on Barack Obama -- and have been for months -- needs to meet my boyfriend: He supported Hillary Clinton during the primary, while I backed Obama. My support wasn't passionate; I didn't write Obama a check until after he clinched the nomination. During the primary I was fond of saying, "I'm for Hillary or Barack or both." But those facts can't save me from the boyfriend's wrath. I'm not to blame, he admits, but I'm handy. Barack Obama has been backtracking on his commitments to gays and lesbians since the moment he got elected, and someone's going to hear about it. Might as well be me.

Take "don't ask, don't tell." During the campaign Obama promised to "end" the ban on gays in the military, but now he talks about "changing" it. Apparently, the president hopes to find some middle ground, a "bipartisan solution," some compromise that pleases both advocates of gay equality and raving antigay bigots. Someone needs to tell the president that "don't ask, don't tell," crafted in 1993 by the Clinton administration, was the split-the-difference middle ground, it was the "bipartisan" compromise, and it's proved to be as unworkable as it is unjust. The policy was supposed to allow gay people to serve in the military so long as they remained closeted, so long as they didn't tell. But it's only the telling part of this equation -- also known as honesty -- that's ever been punished under "don't ask, don't tell." No one's been tossed out of the military for asking (or telling on) a gay soldier, so the witch hunts and expulsions have continued -- at the rate of two service members a day.

My boyfriend is certain that Hillary Clinton, if she'd been elected president, would have been a passionate, ballsy supporter of gay rights. "Don't ask, don't tell" would already be history, he insists, and it's hard for me to argue. Not because he's necessarily right -- we've been betrayed by the Clintons before (Bill signed "don't ask, don't tell" and DOMA into law in the first place) -- but because it's impossible to argue with him about all the progress being made on the civil rights front in the parallel universe where Hillary Clinton is president. He can't actually prove that things would be better under President Hillary Clinton, but I can't prove things would be as bad or worse. All he knows for sure is that -- seven months in -- things are bad under Obama.

And since, um, Barack Obama won the White House by a single vote -- mine -- that makes me ultimately responsible for everything.

And that's why I'm being so tough on the president. Not because Obama won the White House thanks to my vote (or check), but because I know that every broken or delayed promise, every weasel word that falls out of Robert Gibbs's mouth at the daily press briefing, every shift from "end" to "change" is going to upset the man I married in Canada -- where they actually don't make a distinction from a constitutional or legal standpoint between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. And that means yet another argument about what could have been under Hillary Clinton.

Ain't love grand?

While the boyfriend beats me up -- figuratively speaking (he abuses me physically only at my request) -- I'm also being pummeled, via e-mail, by Obama supporters (most of them straight) who think I've been too critical of the president during my TV appearances and in my blog posts at

These presidential defenders seem to fall in two basic camps: those urging patience and those urging self-reliance.

The patience crowd's argument goes like this: The president has a lot on his plate. Compared to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our collapsing economy, and the effort to bring health care to all Americans, repealing DOMA, ending "don't ask, don't tell," passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and ending the HIV travel ban are ridiculously trivial. Plus he's only been in the White House for seven months. Be patient!

But gay rights don't seem so trivial if you're the person being kicked out of the military -- like Dan Choi, Arabic linguist, West Point grad, Iraq vet -- or if you're the person being turned away from your partner's bedside during a medical emergency. But the supposed triviality of "our" issues is just as good an argument for moving on them as it is for shelving them. Demand a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" -- a move supported by 75% of the American people (including wide majorities of conservatives) -- and if members of Congress balk, call them out for bogging down on such a trivial issue, one that most Americans would like to see resolved in our favor.

And it's not like "don't ask, don't tell" isn't a distraction now. Obama's failure to act on the policy -- he has the authority to suspend enforcement of it right now, and 77 members of Congress sent him a letter asking him to do just that -- hasn't kept the issue of gays in the military out of the news. The president has been forced to address it, as have his press secretary and Defense secretary.

And, I'm sorry, but if not now...then when? Next year, 2010, will be time for the midterm election, and we'll be told that Washington can't move on gay issues because they're too controversial -- which is a lie where "don't ask, don't tell" is concerned -- and that we have to focus instead on all the Democrats running in swing districts. Then the following year, 2011, the president's reelection campaign begins.

Can we expect action in a second term? Maybe. But there's no guarantee that the Democrats will hold such large margins in the House and Senate after 2012. Obama may be willing to move on our issues in 2013 -- if we take him at his word -- but might not have the support in Congress by that point. Then we'll once again be told to sit down and shut up during midterms in 2014 and the kickoff of another two-year presidential election cycle in 2015.

Now's the time -- people are being kicked out of the military now, turned away from their partners' bedsides now. And yes, President Obama has a lot on his plate now. But delay now could very well result in no action on gay issues until the next Democrat is president. And since the White House tends to flip back and forth between parties, that could be 16 years from now.

The self-reliance crowd insists that it's irrational for gay people to expect the president to do this work for us. "You want this done," one self-reliance type wrote me, "then you have to do it for yourselves! Don't expect the president or the Democrats to do it for you!" But how exactly are we supposed to go about "doing this" for ourselves? Are we supposed to elect a gay president? Seize power in a coup d'etat (a coup gay'tat?) and pack Congress and the Supreme Court with men who sing in choruses and women who play softball?

The sad fact is this: We can't do this stuff for ourselves. It's not like we haven't been working on these issues; we've been suing, agitating, marching, raising money, crafting and winning arguments. (Colin Powell, one of the architects of "don't ask, don't tell," has come out for its repeal.) But we still need a president and a Congress -- this president, some future president; this Congress, some future Congress -- to enact and sign the legislation that ensures our full civil equality.

And I'm sorry, self-reliance douche bags, but if it's unfair of us to expect the president to do this stuff for us, then why did Barack run around the country for two years promising to do just that? He didn't point to his positions on highway beautification when he asked for our support and our money.

There are some positive signs, some indications that the screaming and yelling -- on the blogosphere, outside of DNC fund-raisers, in my kitchen -- is having an effect. And the White House press corps -- God bless you, Jake Tapper -- has been grilling Robert Gibbs on gay issues, taking our equality and civil rights struggle with the seriousness it deserves and has long been denied.

The president had the Good Gays into the White House for a reception to mark Gay Pride Month, and he used the occasion to rehearse his campaign promises to the gay and lesbian community. After months of dithering, the HIV travel ban looks like it may soon be history; the Matthew Shepard hate-crimes act continues to inch its way through Congress; a trans-inclusive ENDA may be in the works.

These positive developments have only occurred because we made it clear to the White House that we will not be patient. We've made it clear that, as much as we like the president, we will extract a political price if we are slighted or lied to. We've made it clear that we expect President Obama to deliver on candidate Obama's promises.

And deliver on them now. At the Pride Month reception the president predicted that we would all be pleased by the end of his administration. "I suspect that by the time this administration is over, you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration," he said. But that's not good enough.

Last fall we, along with everyone else, got swept up in the momentousness of the campaign, in the symbolism and the history and the drama, and lost sight of something important: Obama is a politician -- and a Chicago politician at that. Nothing is ever given to you. You have to ask and tell and demand and do the work -- not passing the legislation ourselves or signing it ourselves (no coup gay'tat is in the offing), but in making sure our "friends" in the White House and Congress understand that we won't take "wait" for an answer.

What do we want? What we were promised. When do we want it?


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