Please Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a charismatic speaker, a gay marching band and a nice bit of alliteration as much as the next lesbian. But by the time President Obama invoked “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” in his inauguration speech, I was ready to flog him with an It Gets Better DVD. If words were action, this president would be a progressive’s dream. But the LGBT community has been to this rodeo before: the one where Obama at his best – which is to say, in campaign mode – suckers us with platitudes about his commitment to fairness and change, civil rights and constitutional values, and then sits on his butt until we force him to seek an actual political solution.
Cynical, me? No indeed. The Obama who boomed on Monday that “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well” sent out his press secretary the very next day to assure us that the president won’t be expending any political capital to make his rhetoric a reality. When it comes to audacity, Obama’s real legacy is not one of hope, but of feigned helplessness. There’s plenty he could do about LGBT inequality in America if he wanted to, Congress be damned.
Serious about marriage equality, Mr President? Have your administration file an amicus (friend of the court) brief regarding the Proposition 8 marriage equality case the United States supreme court will be hearing this spring.
Serious about your administration’s commitment to policies on LGBT non-discrimination (a still unfulfilled 2008 campaign promise)? Pick up a pen and sign the executive order you refused to sign last April – the one that would ban federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity, thereby protecting approximately 26 million people, or nearly 22% of the total civilian workforce.
That would be a great first step and best pathway toward passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in a country where, as of now, only 16 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that protect against both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in employment in public and private sectors.
The man who vowed on the Capitol steps that “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts” should check out the Guardian’s chart showing LGBT rights in America state by state. He should ponder the chances of a poor lesbian mother making a go of it with her kids in the south-western states, where she’ll have no protection against discrimination of any kind, not in employment, housing, or education, and be denied all marital rights. What must it be like, Mr President, to love someone, then be fired for having their picture on your desk, or denied visitation in hospital because they’re not kin under the law?
And then, as the political strategist Paul Yandura has put it: “Obama needs to do what he’s been avoiding doing for four years: get involved legislatively, as he has with gun control, first by signing the executive order, then by publicly declaring ENDA an administrative priority, and finally by having his congressional liaison start bartering with Senate Democrats to bring it up for a vote.”
It will be up to LGBT activists to hound the president for real reform while others swoon over being mentioned in the inaugural speech. “Fear of chaos is literally the only thing that has ever gotten the Obama administration to move,” said Heather Cronk, the managing director of GetEQUAL. She should know. The same candidate who vowed to be a “fierce advocate” for LGBT rights during his 2008 campaign scattered little more than breadcrumbs in our path until GetEQUAL helped spur Obama into action on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the army in April 2010 – first by having hecklers challenge him during a fundraiser, and then by having Lieutenant Dan Choi chain himself to the White House fence.
Likewise, the president’s heartfelt conversion to marriage equality occurred the month before Gay Pride and the major campaign fundraising season, at a time when advocates disgusted with his waffling had successfully reined in the gAyTM that initially helped propel him into office and half a dozen major polls showed most Americans supporting same-sex marriage. Hardly the stuff that merits a Profile in Courage Award.
Not that “Seneca Falls” or “Selma” fared any better. Obama promised immigration reform, but deported more people than any prior president, including more than 200,000 parents of US citizens. Young Dreamers marched, protested outside of fundraisers, and “came out” in droves. But only when Obama began losing the Latino vote did he relent last June and order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which addresses the short-term needs of only 1 million of the 11 million undocumented people in the US and provides no route to US citizenship. His sole gift to his millions of reproductive rights supporters was including free contraception in health coverage, albeit with exceptions for religiously opposed non-profit organisations with an extension on resolution until August. And then he waved to us at inauguration as though he were our champion. You’ll be hearing from Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall a lot over the next four years, Mr President. No justice, no peace.