Sunday, May 24, 2009

Frank Rich on Dearth of Democratic Leadership in Struggle for Gay Rights: LBJ Stepped Up Big Time

Frank Rich’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, “La Cage aux Democrats,” pinpoints the problem I’ve been discussing on this blog, vis-à-vis the apparent inability of the Obama administration to move forward in addressing gay rights: lack of leadership.

As Rich points out, the silence and stalling of the Obama administration on the agenda of gay rights is particularly hard to understand, at a time in which the power of the religious right to undermine the new administration seems especially limited, and in which even many Republicans are doing all they can to distance themselves from the vicious homophobia in which their party has traded for some time now.

Rich sees the situation in D.C. now as similar to what was going on early in 1963, when the civil rights movement had experienced a series of major breakthroughs—Brown v. Board of Education, the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery bus boycott—followed by stagnation and division as the federal government sought to consolidate rights for African-Americans, and “violent setbacks.” Then, the deciding factor tipping the scales in favor of civil rights was the decision of President Lyndon Baines Johnson “to step up big time” and urge Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.

In Rich’s view, we are at a similar pass now, but what is clearly lacking now is leadership. Neither the Democrats nor Mr. Obama seem willing now to step up and provide the leadership necessary to tip the scales decisively in the direction of what human decency and the Bill of Rights demand:

So what’s stopping the Democrats from rectifying that legacy now? As [civil rights lawyer Evan] Wolfson said to me last week, they lack “a towering national figure to make the moral case” for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South.


“This is a civil rights moment,” Wolfson said, “and Obama has not yet risen to it.” Worse, Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage is now giving cover to every hard-core opponent of gay rights, from the Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean to the former Washington mayor Marion Barry, each of whom can claim with nominal justification to share the president’s views.

Leadership: a word I’ve stressed over and over on this blog. Our nation, and many of our social and religious institutions, stand in dire need of leadership at this point in history. And those of us who have pinned such high hopes on the new president and his administration have no choice except to be bitterly disappointed, precisely because we saw this man of promise as the leader for whom we were hoping. When Mr. Obama and his administration appear to put pragmatic calculation and political expediency over human rights, we feel betrayed.

Particularly when the balance has tipped so decisively that decisive, strong leadership would make all the difference in the world, and when the danger of inactivity and back-stepping remains strong . . . . Mr. Rich notes the “violent setbacks,” the renewed backlash, that occurred in that limbo period after significant breakthroughs had been made, but before the Civil Rights act of 1964 was passed, as Democrats wrung their hands and refused to act because they feared alienating their white Southern base.

Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham in April 1963. Bull Connor turned fire hoses on demonstrators in the same city in May. Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, in June. In September, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, all young black girls, died when a bomb exploded at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham as they attended Sunday School. In the riots that ensued, two more black youths died in Birmingham.

Violent setbacks; backlash: this is what happens, particularly in the dark places in our land, when leaders refuse to be leaders, and to begin the process of making such violence unthinkable, and gradually, undoable. I have stated before that I believe Mr. Obama is a man of conscience, and that he knows what a morally courageous leader ought to do, faced with the choices he faces now.

As he deliberates, I hope he will think about what the unconscionable delays, in-fighting, and lack of leadership produced in 1963, before the president stepped up to the plate and did what was right. Gay rights are important not simply because some major urban areas of the nation have strongly organized, vocal gay communities whose members deserve to pursue their lives free of prejudice.

Gay rights are important, as well—they are imperative—because many of us who are gay and lesbian in the United States live in places in which there are no such support networks, no strong advocates to speak on our behalf when we experience discrimination. We live in those places because they happen, for one reason or another, to be our homes. They happen to be where we grew up and have family ties that we cannot break, if we are to fulfill our obligations as sons and daughters to aging parents, or to brothers and sisters in need of our assistance.

We, too, need the right to live our lives peacefully and productively, free of discrimination. And the discrimination that we can often experience, in the places in which our family ties have placed us, can be brutal. It can range from outright violence to the experience of having one door after another slammed in our faces, as we seek employment commensurate with our abilities. We live, many of us, in well-founded fear that, should our life partner be hospitalized, we might be prevented by hospital authorities from visiting him or her. Many of us lack adequate healthcare because we have no access to partner benefits, even when our partner is working.

In those places throughout our nation—and they represent the nation far more than the major urban centers of the coasts do—we are very likely not to have any partner benefits at all, even when we are in stable, long-standing, committed relationships. The option to have our relationships legally recognized in either a civil union or a marriage is a faraway dream to many of us.

When we find ourselves in situations of conflict in such communities with those moved by homophobic hatred, we seldom have any advocate at all. We fight as best we can, knowing that even many of our gay brothers and sisters who live more privileged lives in enlightened and tolerant urban areas will be unlikely to hear our pleas for assistance.

Faced with questions about how to move the civil rights struggle forward at a time when African Americans continued to be treated like animals to be hunted down, by some violent, hate-driven sociopaths in our country whose behavior was only barely checked by the law, Lyndon Johnson asked what the presidency is for, if not for stepping up and leading. Because Mr. Johnson stepped up and led, Congress passed the Civil Rights act of 1964.

That act did not eradicate the disease of racism from our nation. It did, however, provide a powerful tool to those who wanted to address that disease: it began the process of outlawing much of the overt discrimination that, in turn, fed the violence of sociopathic elements of our society. It began the long process of making overt, violent discrimination against one’s fellow citizens simply because of their pigmentation unthinkable.

LBJ made a difference. I hope that Mr. Obama quickly realizes that he, too, can make a difference—and that this difference will affect many lives that could be made significantly better by a stroke of his pen or a strong, unambiguous statement from his mouth.

On his willingness to choose now, faced as he is with this important human rights crossroads and the decisions with which it confronts him, his future as a leader, and as president, hinges.