White House race 2012: Barack Obama from zero to hero
In the second part of our 2012 election preview feature, we look how President Obama has ‘evolved’ his reputation with LGBT voters
Approximately a month ago, President Barack Obama was the mortal enemy to gay and lesbian America.
According to a number of gay bloggers, writers, and activists, the president differed little from infamous civil rights foes like Bull Connor. In 1963, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful protestors. No one accused Obama of putting state trained dogs on children, but 30 days ago he was as hostile to gay equality as Connor was to black voting rights.
‘Until the president publicly puts his wheels down on the side of full equality, he must be passionately engaged, confronted and protested for maintaining his prejudiced, hurtful public position,’ playwright Dustin Lance Black wrote for the Hollywood Reporter. ‘If his evolution continues to fall short, then those interested in equality in this country must abandon their support. Hope should never become delayed disappointment.’
Black was certain Obama’s wheels were not near full equality because he was still ‘evolving’ on same-sex marriage. The president was certain civil unions, with the same rights and responsibilities of marriage, offered protection to LGBT families.
The playwright’s condemnation was the strongest in the echo chamber of gay political blogs and opinion pages.
‘I used to play along with the idea that Obama was evolving. That’s gotten old and outdated already. Now, it’s clearly a political calculation the White House is making not to announce support marriage. And, I don’t like people playing politics with my equality,’ Joe Sudbay wrote at Americablog.
‘It’s embarrassing to watch almost all of the absurd rhetoric around this issue that’s coming out of the White House,’ David Mixner, a longtime activist, said in a 2011 June Huffington Post article. ‘You’re either for it or you’re against it. You’ve got all the facts. Everybody’s given you time to evolve… Enough already.’
Much of this sound and fury was well deserved because Obama’s marriage dance was all political shell game. Nothing wrong with that – unless your only connection to the machinations of power is through the TV show the West Wing. In 1996, when running to be a state senator in the mid-western state Illinois, an unknown Barack Obama filled out a questionnaire supporting of marriage equality. A White House official first said a political operative filled out the form. This was quickly walked back and the administration thought it best to repeat a mantra.
‘He’s been very clear about his position on gay marriage,’ said White House spokesman Jay Carney. ‘He’s been very clear about how that position is evolving. I don’t have any new announcement to make.’
Being an unknown local politician, and supporting same-sex marriage, is one thing. Coming to the national stage in 2004 (the president became a household name after his Democratic convention speech), and standing fully behind gay couples is something else. Especially considering how in 2004 all polls pointed to a majority of Americans being against marriage rights.
Team Obama deserved all the criticism for lacking imagination to create a better answer for his position in the 90s and a month ago. Yet, all of the ‘Obama is our enemy’ talk glossed over achievements few considered 10 years ago: Firstly, for the first time in 17 years, LGBT soldiers no longer have to worry about being kicked out of the service for their sexuality. On 22 December 2010, Obama signed the bill ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Secondly, in 2011 February his Justice Department noted that section three of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconsititional and would no longer be defended in court. Thirdly he signed a hate crime bill – the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act – that included sexual orientation and gender orientation, and fourthly he created new regulations for hospitals when it comes to visiting rights and gay families.
From the moment he stepped into the White House, Obama’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender record has exceeded all previous presidents. Granted the bar was set extremely low, but LGBT equality has been on a steady, all be it slow, march in the past three years.
‘I think it’s fair to critique President Obama on his missteps in dealing with LGBT issues, but I think it should not be done in a vacuum. There is a record that is long and deep that shows that, regardless of the differences of opinion on some key issues, he is very much a strong supporter of LGBT equality,’ said Jerame Davis.
Why a pro-gay president had to fully support marriage rights will be a topic for historians. Could it be marriage has evolved as the central gay rights equality plank? Another reason is an unease about those very missteps Davis alluded to.
The first sign of trouble was when Reverend Rick Warren was chosen to give the invocation at the 2009 inauguration. Warren’s history with AIDS patients is commendable, but he’s also known for uttering anti-gay comments. More recently the president refused to sign an executive order banning LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. A quirky decision considering the administration’s consistency when it comes to putting federal government power behind equality.
All seems to be forgiven because Obama mouthed some words. And this is another conundrum that will hound historians. The president’s actions, those things that affected the lives of people, never earned the type of excitement his marriage position did. Putting ‘support’ and ‘gay marriage’ in one sentence, flung open the wallets of gay donors and hiked the enthusiasm. Ending DADT and not supporting DOMA were not enough.