Can Obama Make Peace With Gays

As Obama prepares to give a speech to one of the most powerful gay groups in America tonight, Gabriel Arana says he has some explaining to do about his shocking inaction on gay rights.

Max Whittaker / Getty Images

In an attempt to regain dwindling gay support, President Barack Obama is set to address a room of decked-out, well-heeled politicos at the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday night. As the self-proclaimed “largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil-rights organization,” the HRC might seem the natural place for Obama to amass support. But the gay community is unlikely to be placated by either the speech or the venue. Members of the gay community who are already angry at the administration for its weak defense of gay rights are also turning on established gay-lobbying groups like the HRC that some say have traded protest signs for cocktail glasses.

“The administration is caught in a bit of a time warp, and they think it’s 1993,” says John Aravosis, founder of AmericaBlog. “They’re trying to get credit for very B- and C-list moves.”

The White House has been tight-lipped about what Obama plans to say, though an official source at the White House said he plans on highlighting "incremental advancements." But various bloggers and the gay lobby are demanding that the president make substantive moves: Suspend Don’t Ask Don’t Tell with an executive order until it can be formally repealed; push Congress on the Defense of Marriage Act; and campaign for the passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Many gay-rights supporters on the ground doubt any of it will happen.

In a post that sent ripples through the gay blogosphere this week, The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan—typically the picture of equanimity—said Obama just needs to do something: "Until then, Mr. President, why don't you have a nice steaming cup of shut-the-fuck-up?"

"The administration is caught in a bit of a time warp, and they think it's 1993,” says John Aravosis, founder of AmericaBlog. “They're trying to get credit for very B- and C-list moves."

These moves include Obama's recent appointment of a gay ambassador and his extension of some federal benefits—though not health insurance—to gay spouses in June. Instead of really accomplishing anything for gay rights, the administration's accomplishments are symbolic gestures meant to make the president seem “cool” with gay people—and thereby appeal to moderate mainstream voters. But they don't secure anything substantive or new for gay people. Both Clinton and even virulently anti-gay Bush II-appointed gay officials, and spouses of federal employees already enjoyed some of the limited rights Obama ostensibly gave them, like hospital visitation.

Jacob Bernstein: Breaking the Ice with Gay Activists

The gay movement's building frustration also has to do with the administration's failure to expend any political capital to repeal DOMA and DADT. And there have been a number of highly publicized affronts to the gay community: the Justice Department's defense of DOMA in court and the selection of anti-gay pastor Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration, to name two.

"This is 10 months into the legislative year, and we haven't even gotten the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes bill passed," said Jim Burroway, editor of the gay news site Box Turtle Bulletin. (The House passed the bill last week, and it is expected to make it through the Senate soon.) "Repealing DOMA during Obama's presidency is certainly out of the question." This might seem cynical, but it seems less so in light of National Security Adviser James Jones' recent remarks on CNN, in which he said that Obama just "has an awful lot on his desk" right now and might have to wait until Iraq is a “functioning and stable democracy” (i.e. until the "war" is over).

But at least some of the frustration among the gay community is directed at established gay-rights organizations like the HRC, whose leaders are increasingly seen as impotent political insiders who spend their time making fancy friends instead of advocating for gay rights. For example, in response to the Justice Department's court filings on behalf of DOMA—in which administration lawyers compared gays to pedophiles—the White House held a cocktail party, which seemed to appease them. The same tone-deafness will again be on display tonight as HRC patrons make light conversation inside the slick Walter E. Washington Convention Center and gay-rights groups protest the administration outside.

"[The administration] is still putting their eggs in the big-gay-group basket thinking they're the ones who control the entire community and they don't anymore," Aravosis said.

The real question for gay-rights supporters is whether anyone should be surprised by the administration's inaction given Obama's public opposition to gay marriage. In Maine, opponents of marriage equality are handing out flyers with quotes from the president, who has cited his "Christian values" as the motivation for supporting civil unions instead of marriage. In the run-up to the election, the hope was that he was concealing his true feelings in order to get elected. But the fact that gay-rights organizations and activists settled for this shows how far behind the political process trails the culture. The president and the gay lobby may wake up soon and find that, as the president said of Republicans at the Democratic National Convention, the ground has shifted beneath them.

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Gabriel Arana works for The American Prospect and lives in Washington, D.C.