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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Quo Vadis, Mr. President?

President Obama Departs White House For Trip To Egypt, Germany And France

The more I reflect upon President Obama's offhand attitude towards the urgency of our struggle for equal dignity and respect, and the equal protection of the laws, the more disappointed I am.

The President's brief comments to Brian Williams, shown in the snippet I posted yesterday, show that he thinks he is a good friend of the gays; and truth to tell, in comparison with his benighted predecessor, we have to consider him a friend, rather than an enemy.

But there are friends, and then there are good friends; people who, in the trite phrase, are "there for you" when you need them; who go to bat for you; who know what you feel, and care.

I don't expect the President to put teh gayz at the very top of his priority list, and I don't think anyone else does; our country and the world are facing several grave crises at the moment that affect everyone's safety and wellbeing. But I do expect gay equality to be on the priority list. Not stuffed in a forgotten file in a back drawer.

I expect the President - based on his own words, his own promises - to give the country a lead on these issues. It's very easy to do: a forceful sentence dropped here and there, a paragraph or two now and then. A clear and repeated statement that equality for LGBT people is and remains an unrelenting goal of this Administration. He doesn't have to show up at protest rallies, he just needs to remind the nation, consistently, that we matter too, that we are also Americans, that our families and our rights are no less important than anyone else's.

Why he is not doing this - it seems he rarely mentions us unless pressed to do so by the media - is a mystery to me, and a deeply hurtful one. I believed the man, I voted for him, I put my confidence in him; he made an implied contract with the gay community, our votes for his promises, and now is the time for him to pay up, in word and deed.

Actions speak even louder than words. Mr. Obama said in the Brian Williams interview that he is not carrying "too much on his plate," that he can and is dealing with all that he should. So what about gay rights, equality, and justice? What has he done so far?

Now, without Googling up anything, just off the top of my head here are the only three concrete actions I recall at this moment that he has taken on our behalf: he directed our United Nations delegation to sign the U.N. declaration against criminalization of homosexuality; he publicly endorsed the passage of the hate-crimes bill in Congress; and he proclaimed June as Gay Pride month.

All well and good; thank you, Mr. President.

But now here is what he has not done, again just off the top of my head here: although Congress passed a law to lift the ban on HIV+ persons entering this country, he and his Administration have yet to implement the law; people are still being turned away at the borders, including 60 Canadians just last week, travelling to an AIDS conference in New York. This situation can be rectified at a moment's notice if the President only gives the word down the chain of command; why has he not done so?

Also, more than 200 gay and lesbian servicemembers have been kicked out of the military just since Inauguaration Day. Not only does this cause great hardship and grief to individuals whose careers have just been trashed, it also weakens our armed forces and to some degree endangers our national security by removing talented, well-trained and motivated people from the ranks. When a reporter can get anyone in the Administration to comment on DADT, the vague, reluctant answer is that, oh, it would take an act of Congress to overturn that, and lots and lots of consultations with the generals and admirals, etc., etc.

I say that's bullshit, a patently obvious evasion of the issue. I don't believe it. Even though I do see the advantage of building consensus and persuading the top brass on this issue, still, the plain fact is that the President is Commander-in-Chief; he can do what Truman did for blacks, and issue an executive order at any time to stop these discharges, or at the very least, suspend the process until a new policy can be worked out.

But you see, he's not doing that, and I predict he's not going to, despite the emphasis from him and the First Lady on their care for military families and all that. It's straight families they are concerned about. You notice that he has not even come out and said, okay, by the end of this year (or whenever, but a definite time), we are going to organize a conference with military chiefs, we want to discuss points A, B, and C, our goal for gays in the military is X, Y, or Z. No, there is no plan, no timetable, no vision about DADT: nothing from this Administration.

Another point where Obama is missing the mark he set for himself is when he says - as in the clip from last night - yes, I want gay couples to have access to federal rights. Well, okay, fine: what exactly are you going to do to get us that access, Mr. President?

Does your Administration have a federal gay-rights statute in mind, a draft of a bill to send to Congress; how about an outline of a proposal for such a bill? Do you have the ghost of an intention to do one concrete thing to get us access to the equal protection of the laws guaranteed to all citizens by the 14th Amendment - specifically, the 1,138 federal rights and privileges conferred by law upon all straight married couples everywhere but specifically and intentionally denied - by DOMA - to any gay couples? Do you?

Now I'm a realist; I do understand that as a popular, newly-elected President, with both houses of Congress controlled by his party, that Obama's great push this year - and he will never again have so much power and influence over what happens, because that's the nature of politics - his great push is to save the economy, manage the warfare abroad, and nail down his goals for healthcare, education, and energy policies before this year is out. All that is well and good, and indeed utterly necessary for the happiness, security, and wellbeing of us all. And I do confidently foresee that history will look back on his term of office as a time of magnificent achievements in all these areas, and more.

But ours is a struggle for civil rights: it is not optional, it is not marginal, it is not ignorable. Our cause is just, our goal is justice, and our time is now. Not tomorrow, not someday, not whenever a convenient moment arrives. It is now, and not later.

As the President himself said yesterday, alluding to Muslim-Americans, but in words that also pertain directly to us:

We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words – within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."
We gays are also part of the many, Mr. President. While you are reaching out and inspiring other people, other groups, all around the world - don't forget us. We are standing right here in front of you. Do you stand beside us? We would follow you - but will you lead?

Quo vadis? Whither goest thou, Mr. President?

* * * * *

The President gave a magnificent speech yesterday in Cairo, which will be long remembered and is well worth reading. I believe his honesty and humility will go a long way towards repairing the catastrophic mistakes of his predecessor in that region. The full text is here, but I've pulled out a few notable excerpts, which I think have a bearing, in a roundabout way, on our situation as gays and lesbians seeking equality in this country:
I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. . . .

For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding. . . .

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere. . . .

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.

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