Thursday, June 26, 2008

Obama on the LGBT Community: Hope for Change or A New Smokescreen?

For anyone interested in the interplay of religion and public life in the U.S., this presidential election is proving fascinating. And since issues of race and gender are never distant from our public political and religious discussions, the election process is proving to be an outstanding venue for those conversations we never quite manage to have in the public square: about race and gender (and the connected topic of homophobia), the role of religion in both areas, and about the role of religion in building or hindering a more humane participatory democracy.

Now that Mr. Obama’s nomination seems certain, I’m interested to see the emergence of open discussion about how he might relate to the gay community, if elected. This is a healthy sign, in my view. For many of us in the LGBT, hope that a presidential candidate will translate his/her pre-election promises into action once he/she is elected is muted.

We’ve been used too much—our legwork, votes, and dollars freely taken when offered—and then thrown under the bus once the election is over, to be optimistic that this election will usher in a new age of inclusion and justice for our community. I was deeply disappointed in how Bill Clinton related to his LGBT friends who worked so hard to elect him, once he was elected. Though I was prepared to vote for Hilary Clinton if she had been chosen the Democratic nominee, I was highly skeptical of the sincerity of her faint promises to make things better for the gay community if elected. I was skeptical because of her husband’s behavior after he was elected.

We have long been the red-haired step-children of the Democratic party, we who are LGBT. The party needs and wants us come election time. After the election, the message is we’d best scuttle back to our closets and stop expecting to be treated as a real minority group deserving of real rights.

Obama has promised to change this—or, at least some of it. And, as a result, members of the LGBT community are now debating Obama’s track record on LGBT issues, and the sincerity of his promises.

One of the best discussions I’ve seen of this topic is Pam Spaulding’s 24 June blog posting “Obama on the LGBT Record—What Does It Really Say?” (see I’ve noted before that I find Pam (who happens to be African-American) one of the most even-handed and incisive political bloggers around.

In this posting, Pam notes Obama’s mixed record: his continued support for the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, yet his opposition to a federal constitutional amendment to enshrine that definition in the constitution; his appeal to “ex-gay” (and homophobic) constituencies through Rev. McClurkin on his South Carolina campaign tour, vs. his willingness to speak out against homophobia in settings in which no other candidate has been willing to speak out—including homophobic black religious gatherings.

My own position at this point is one of cautious optimism. I take muted hope from the following three factors of Obama’s campaign:

1. Obama has been willing to stand up and speak out against homophobia when he pays a price for doing so. As I have just noted, unlike many other African-American leaders, Mr. Obama has been willing to confront the ugly homophobia of many African Americans (especially African-American churchgoers) head on. He has also challenged homophobia in “unsafe” settings such as his meeting with citizens in Beaumont, Texas, hardly a hotbed of tolerance. Unlike Ms. Clinton, who almost never even used the words “gay” or “lesbian” in her campaign speeches, Mr. Obama has introduced discussion of the place of LGBT people in speeches about democratic society, when conventional political wisdom would have encouraged him to elide any mention of gay folks.

As Michael Crawford, another African-American gay political commentator, notes yesterday in his article "A Gay Tale of Two Presidential Candidates" on the Bilerico blog, "Obama may not be there yet on marriage, but on every other key LGBT issue he has proclaimed our right to equal treatment under the law" (see

2. Mr. Obama’s own religious background seems to comprise a strong commitment to equality, justice, and inclusion of gay human beings, on religious grounds. It is no accident that he is now being attacked by religious right spokespersons such as James Dobson. His theology represents a departure from “traditional” evangelical approaches to the question of where to place gay human beings. Dobson knows this, and has thrown down the gauntlet: this is a power struggle about how to interpret the scriptures in evangelical churches, about whose interpretation will prevail.

3. Finally, Mr. Obama’s personal style, his political penchants, do point to the new way of doing politics that has been discussed constantly during this election cycle. He appears to attempt to listen and include. He is willing to reach beyond the traditional A-list Democratic party power brokers (as well as the A-list power brokers of the gay community) and reach out to a much broader audience—particularly the young, many of whom are simply impatient of the homophobia of their churches and mainstream politicians.

Given what I’ve seen of Mr. Obama thus far, I intend to remain hopeful that his powerful statement about equality as a moral imperative is a bona fide statement of his beliefs and his political intent, if elected. At the same time, I have lived long enough to know that no politician is the messiah. Politicians are, well, politicians. They make prudential judgments that often result in sacrifice of their principles.

In that regard, everything depends on whether Mr. Obama really does represent a departure from the kind of triangulating politics, which are totally tone-deaf to considerations of justice, that have dominated the Democratic party in the Clinton era. Much depends on Mr. Obama's willingness to bite the bullet if pressed hard by constituencies that make him pay a price for supporting justice and inclusion for gay Americans. The Clintons have not been willing to do so. As a result, we have had an era of cynical triangulation among many Democratic leaders that enabled the Republican possession of the White House, as well as the legislative and judicial branches of the government.

I hope that Mr. Obama represents a new paradigm. If not, I don’t see a great deal of hope for our nation, even if he is elected.

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