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In Obama’s White House, Process Is Progress

In Obama’s White House, Process Is Progress


At Wednesday's reception for Pride Month, I had a chance to ask President Obama a question, so I chose one on which he could act: "Do you support the Respect for Marriage Act, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act?" He said, "I absolutely support DOMA repeal." When I asked again about the Feinstein bill, he made clear that he supports it, but he instructed his staff on hand to report back quickly on the details, and they promised to let me know. He said, with a bit of impatience, "There's always process at the White House."

It was very clear to me that he wants the bill to move, but as with everything in Washington, the details matter. And that's why I walked away from two chock-full days there more optimistic than ever about the prospects for full LGBT equality. That may seem strange with all of the pussyfooting by the president about the words "I support same-sex marriage," but let's look at the bigger picture.

At the briefing for LGBT activists Wednesday in the Old Executive Office Building, the 150 or so present could not help but be awestruck by the depth and breadth of work this administration has done and does to advance LGBT equality across the nation and the world. As at the reception later, the audience was not the usual suspects. There was Richard Zaldivar, the founder of The Wall/Las Memorias Project and his colleague Eddie Martinez. And Joshua Loker, a new Courage Campaign volunteer from Texas, whose testimony brings tears to the eyes, and Danielle Xenos from Georgia, another volunteer working in the trenches to repeal DOMA.

We heard from the general counsel of the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Health and Human Services, National Security Council, Housing and Urban Development, White House Office of National AIDS Policy, and Jon Carson, head of the White House Office of Public Engagement. This was not a political briefing. It was not designed to revel in generalities or exhort support. It was a policy briefing. And this is where I understood what the president meant by "process."

I have always wondered how the federal government works. Yes, we elect a president and members of Congress, but there are about 2 million civilians employed by the government and another 2 million or so in the military. When the president issues an executive order or a law is passed that must be implemented, how does it happen? And what does "administration policy" mean practically?

In this case it means that virtually every federal department actively engages around LGBT issues (among many others). And it does so via the president's appointees who share and implement his vision.

The most poignant example to me was the National Security Council's work to push LGBT equality globally. David Pressman, the ominously titled director for war crimes and atrocities, said that every ambassador in the world actively raises LGBT rights in his or her host country and pushes for progressive change. Specifically, he pointed out that for the first time in history, at the hand of the United States, the U.N. General Assembly had voted to condemn "extrajudicial" executions of gays and lesbians. The fact that this had never before been U.N. policy is mind-boggling. The fact that the Obama administration made it so is one we take for granted.

He then told about the circumstances surrounding the murder of David Kato in Uganda. He said that in addition to other contacts with the government, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in the country attended Kato's funeral just to make clear that the U.S. government cares about how it was conducted. Unfortunately, hundreds of antigay protesters showed up and commandeered the stage. Just as a melee was breaking out, one of the mourners took the microphone and read aloud a letter of condolences to Kato's family and friends from President Barack Obama.

This caused a burst of enthusiastic applause in the auditorium. No one ever pressured the government to do that. They just did. And we all understood clearly how process works for us. I could go on. A senior official from the Department of Justice talked about how the hate-crimes law has encouraged localities to prosecute such attacks and what the Department of Justice does to support and, where appropriate, lead.

The Department of Defense briefing was enthralling. While many of us want repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" certified yesterday, what became clear is that when it is, probably in the next two months, the military will implement it without tolerance of bigotry or dissent. And quickly the military will become the biggest advocate for DOMA repeal because the military will not want to have two classes of service members: one with full spousal benefits and one with none.

Which leads back to the White House reception Wednesday afternoon. I want President Obama to win reelection. But I also want him to advocate even more forcefully for full equality as we head into electoral silly season, and that means firmly and clearly endorsing the Respect for Marriage Act, as over 18,000 Courage members have called on him to do. Yes, he has disappointed on the public option, the war in Afghanistan, taxes for the wealthy, and fulfillment of full equality, among other issues. On the other hand, we have the first health care reform in nearly 50 years, imperfect as it is. We are virtually out of Iraq, and we're finally beginning to get out of Afghanistan -- slowly, but we're starting. And in weeks, DADT will be history. And now the president is on record for raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year. That will have to happen in 2012, not 2013.

I get impatient and even angry sometimes because I want this president to stand up and declare, not straddle. Yet I have to look at what the process of the Obama administration means to LGBT people. We have an entire administration that does not flinch from making our lives better and that works to do so every day.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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