Tuesday, July 7, 2009

168 Days Down the Road: Assessing the Obama Administration on Gay Rights

I’ve been away from blogging about current issues for some days now. The break has given me time to think carefully about the stance of the Obama administration towards LGBT citizens. In what follows, I’d like to formulate a few reflections.

Two days ago, John Aravosis published an email from Richard Socarides on Americablog. Socarides was formerly the top aide of the Clinton administration.

In the email, Socarides discusses the recent statements of Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs, about don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT). Mullen calls for yet more study of the bogus “effects” of ending DADT, and offers yet more insulting, spurious reasons for holding onto this policy forbidding openly gay soldiers from serving in the military.

As Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, has repeatedly noted (e.g., here), his exhaustive study of the process by which the Clinton administration formulated DADT has convinced him that the arguments put forth to defend this discriminatory policy are totally phony. Made up. Without any substance. Based merely on prejudice.

Key players in the formulation of DADT have admitted to Frank that they had no basis at all—no sound basis in reason, logic, or law—for creating a policy that blatantly discriminates against a sector of American citizens solely because of an inborn trait shared by those citizens, which has no bearing at all on their ability to do military service. Frank’s informants told him that when they could find no compelling basis for their discriminatory policy, they made up the idea that allowing openly gay personnel to serve in the military would undermine morale and create an “unacceptable risk” for non-gay soldiers.

That was in the early 1990s. But now, in 2009, with a new president who professes to be a “fierce advocate” for gay equality, the process continues—brazenly and insolently, as if the almost three-quarters of American citizens who want to see DADT abolished don’t have heads on our shoulders, and can’t see the smokescreen being offered to justify unjustifiable prejudice.

Mullen now wants us to believe that admitting openly gay personnel into the military would undermine the “family values” of the military—an astonishing argument, when one notes that the military has never been an exceptionally family-friendly institution, and that there is abundant evidence of ongoing sexual abuse of female soldiers by male soldiers in all sectors of the military.

Socarides asks how it can be that, over a decade and a half down the road from the implementation of DADT, and with a robust majority of citizens calling for the end of this discriminatory policy, we still see our commander in chief—in the case of Mr. Obama, one who has himself noted that DADT is discriminatory and that he intends to abolish it—caving in to a cabal of military leaders bent on discriminating. Socarides notes:

How can you advocate a measured approach to equality? Deliberate is what I'm looking for. Deliberate is what we were promised.

And I agree. Wholeheartedly. The moment that one recognizes that a practice is unjust, one becomes morally implicated. The only defensible moral response when one recognizes that a practice is unjust is for one to work to oppose and abolish that practice.

One cannot persuasively speak about equality as a moral imperative—as President Obama has done vis-à-vis gay citizens—and then call for a measured, pragmatic approach to abolishing practices that enshrine overt discrimination against gay citizens. As I watch the president engage the gay community, I have come to the conclusion that President Obama has no intention at all of doing what African Americans rightly demanded that other American citizens do in the 1950s and 1960s: having recognized the injustice of legal segregation, we were rightly expected by our African-American brothers and sisters to act and to act now to abolish segregation and to work against racial discrimination in our society.

In his handling of what he himself admits is a moral imperative for gay equality, Mr. Obama has undercut the entire moral basis—the human rights basis—of his platform. Having watched the new president’s dealings with the gay community, I am not surprised to see him willing to cave in to those opposed to progressive change in the economic sector and in healthcare. In my view, the way President Obama is dealing with the gay community casts significant light on his about-face regarding the unjust imprisonment of those considered threats to national security without any trial, and regarding a truth commission to examine the war crimes of the previous administration.

All is of a piece. We have a president who plays pragmatic games with moral imperatives, and in the process, totally eviscerates his own rhetoric about moral imperatives and their importance to progressive politics.

In my view, the president’s silence about gay people and gay issues after he came to office (except when gay dollars have been withdrawn from the Democratic party, and he is willing to throw a few more meaningless rhetorical crumbs our way) speaks volumes about his insincerity when he claims that our equality as a moral imperative. When a group of citizens is struggling for the most fundamental rights in some areas of this country—when a gay seaman can be murdered after he had experienced repeated harassment under DADT and a patron of a gay bar beaten so badly that he may lose his sight by police who say that the faggot was asking for it—something has to be done.

Silence is not a justifiable response to the ongoing oppression of a group of human beings, for no reason other than their innate sexual orientation. The gay community is not asking for incidental, special luxury rights, but for the most basic rights of all: for the right to hold jobs without being fired because we are gay, for the right to live where we want to live regardless of our sexual orientation, for the right to visit our partners in the hospital, for the right to equal treatment under the law and equal treatment in the tax system. And for the right not to be beaten to death solely because of who we are . . . .

Given the president’s continued (and deeply immoral) silence as some American citizens experience ongoing discrimination, often violent discrimination, due to sexual orientation, I have come to the same conclusion that Paul Gorrell has reached :

As far as LGBT citizens are concerned, Obama might as well be George W. Bush.

And I agree with Gorrell, as well, when he argues that this administration does not intend to listen to arguments about moral imperatives from the gay community and its supporters. The administration does not intend to live up to its own rhetoric about the moral imperative for equality.

Gorrell notes that only money and pressure—forceful political pressure—will make a difference: withdrawing gay money from the DNC coffers, and political pressure at every level possible to keep gay stories and gay lives in the forefront of the conscience of our society, until somebody does something soon to stop the oppression.