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Obama Elected – Expectations and Disappointments

If it is true that effective leadership means being willing to risk the wrath of your supporters, then Barack Obama is off to a good start.

Obama’s election was hailed as a victory for progressives, including the LGBT community, who had played an important role in his campaign, such as openly gay  Deputy Campaign Manager Steve Hildebrand and the Obama Pride outreach team.  Obama mentioned gays in his acceptance speech, and the Lesbian and Gay Band Association will march in the inaugural parade after having been relegated to sidewalks during President Clinton’s inaugurations and not participating at all during George W. Bush’s ceremonies.  There was even a suggestion that openly gay William White could be nominated for Secretary of the Navy, a civilian position that would nonetheless have a great deal of symbolic value.

That enthusiasm began to rub off this past week with the realization that despite the lobbying efforts of HRC and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, there would be no openly gay members of Obama’s Cabinet.  Activists had hoped that Mary Beth Maxwell, a lesbian and founding executive director for American Rights at Work, would become Secretary of Labor. The position was instead offered to Hilda Solis.

As frustrating as that was, the disappointment over the labor secretary paled in comparison to the outright rage many felt following Obama’s selection of the Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his January 20 inauguration.  Outside of religious circles, Warren is probably best known as the author of the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life and for getting Obama and John McCain to attend an event at his Saddleback Church during a time when the two candidates could not even agree to a debate schedule. His affable demeanor and massive popularity have led some to call Warren “America’s Preacher” in the tradition of Billy Graham.

Despite his slick image, Warren is an ardent and vocal opponent of gay rights, describing  himself as having the same opinions as noted homophobe James Dobson, only presented with a friendlier face. While lending his support to Proposition 8, he claimed gays were only 2 percent of the population and therefore unworthy of having rights.  He has also likened being gay to incest and pedophilia. Yet he has denied being homophobic, playing the “I have many gay friends” card that was also recently used by Pat Boone after he was called out for his homophobia.

Opinions are sharply divided on what to make of Warren’s presence at the inauguration.  Because this was ultimately Obama’s decision, does this mean he is not the “friend of the family” that many believe he is? After all, someone who expressed hate for women, other religions, or racial groups would not even have been considered.  This will probably be the most watched inauguration in history, and allowing Warren a prime position could be seen as tacit approval of his beliefs.  On the other hand, some consider invocations to be minor events that will soon be forgotten, and in any event Warren will be balanced out by civil rights veteran (and gay rights supporter) Rev. Joseph E. Lowery’s benediction.

I think the intense scrutiny about the inauguration shows the correlation between expectation and disappointment. People get confused when people behave in a manner that doesn’t match what others expect of them, as the struggles of many transgender people will attest.  Because Obama is considered the most gay-friendly president in history, the thought of him affiliating with the likes of Warren has generated criticism that probably would not be as vociferous had McCain made the same decision.

For another example of the price sometimes paid for not living up to expectations, consider the case of Richard Cizik, a spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals.  During a recent interview, Cizik let it slip that he was “shifting” his opinion on gay marriage towards supporting civil unions. This was unacceptable to evangelicals who disprove of gay rights, and Cizik was forced to resign his position. It appears that regardless of your political beliefs, it can be risky to rock the boat.

A final reaction to the inaugural lineup.  Obama explained having Warren and Lowery on the same program as evidence of the “everyone is welcome” approach he will bring to Washington.  An admirable stance, but I feel like it’s always LGBT people who are expected to accept homophobes, in a way that antigay forces are not implored to deal with LGBT individuals. The Warren controversy and the failure to land a Cabinet position are proof that there is a still a long way to go until LGBTs are truly included in society.

Minority groups are often told to wait until their foes are “ready” before expecting social change, but because many people will never reach that point, activism is important. I’m curious to see if these latest slights will energize the LGBT community and its organizations in the same way that Proposition 8 seemed to be a defining moment for our community.

From  “Blackout” for 12/14/08 by Anthony Rucker


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