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Expectations in the Age of Obama

When President Obama was elected last year, many in the LGBT community were excited by his message of change, which we hoped would include changing the ways we were treated by the federal government. Optimistic voters envisioned an immediate repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, passage of anti-gay hate crimes legislation, and equal benefits for same-sex relationships.

A little more than two months into his administration, some have grown skeptical of his intentions towards the LGBT community. The ban on gays in the military still remains, and does not appear to be addressed any time soon. ENDA is still not seen as a major priority. And recent articles about Obama’s association with preachers like Joel Hunter (former president of the Christian Coalition), Kirbyjon Caldwell (whose church as been involved with an ex-gay program), and TD Jakes (I wrote of his son’s arrest for cruising a couple of weeks ago) have re-aggravated the injury caused by Rick Warren’s presence at the Inauguration.

Is Obama repaying the LGBT community for its support by playing it for fools, offering grand promises that he has no intention of fulfilling?

I’m not so quick to make that judgment. Like many others, I would have liked it if Obama had come into office and eliminated all government discrimination against us with a wave of his hand. But I don’t think that was a realistic expectation.

While I await a definitive action on specific LGBT issues, I can only remain hopeful until given a reason otherwise. Obama’s list of goals for the LGBT community, posted on remains the most expansive expression of concerns for our community that any president has made. He has also decided to endorse the United Nations declaration calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality, which George W. Bush refused to sign.

Rather than speculating on Obama’s “true feelings” about the LGBT community, I think it’s worthwhile to look at what I consider the real issue, frustration with the pace of social change.

We live in a microwave culture, where instant results are seen as easily achievable. I think of that commercial that says “waiting is overrated.” Commercials try to convince us that tell us we can improve our health and appearance overnight with minimal effort. People go from local obscurities to American Idols in a manner of weeks, internet sensations emerge with stunning speed, and the lottery tells us we’re only a ticket away from having the millions that we deserve. In a society where fast food meals and immediate online hook-ups are the norm, it is easy to get upset upon discovering that civil rights aren’t on the drive-through menu.

A bit of perspective here. Stonewall, the event credited with starting the modern gay rights movement, happened in 1969. There has been great change in public attitudes and policies towards LGBT people over the last four decades, especially the last fifteen years. Things can always be better, but the current amount of LGBT visibility and legal protection is at a level I didn’t think I’d see during my lifetime.

Compare that to the African-American struggle for equality, which took at least 102 years, from 1862 (year of the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery) to 1964 (passage of the Civil Rights Act). And that is only if you consider black people as having attained full equality by the end of the 1960s. Many people would look at disparate statistics concerning everything from employment and education to health care and home ownership as evidence that black people continue to face discrimination.

I am not saying, as Mike Huckabee and other homophobes have declared, that we as LGBT people have to “wait our time” and “pay more dues” before getting equal rights. I am saying that we cannot wait on Barack Obama, Bono, Gavin Newsom, Rachel Maddow, Phil Bredesen, or any other politician or celebrity to deliver gay rights. Celebrities can serve as critical allies but their ability to impact policy is limited. Politicians tend to be guided by expediency (and campaign contributions) when deciding what to support.

When it comes down to it, we are responsible for creating the change that we want to see.

I look at our response to the AIDS crisis as an example of us taking proactive steps for our community. When AIDS emerged in the 1980s, there was virtually no response from the government. The LGBT community formed our own health organizations and groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation to force people to take our issues seriously. These actions eventually resulted in policy change.

Perhaps we need to rekindle those days of street activism to get bills like ENDA passed, and stop the current bill in the Tennessee legislature to prevent gays and lesbians from adopting. A more low-key approach may suit your personality better, in which case there are plenty of organizations that would be glad to have your support.

Either way, it is clear that the LGBT community will have to remain on the front lines in the battle for our civil rights, rather than expecting outsiders (even if they are friendly politicians) to do the heavy lifting.

From “Blackout” for 3/23/09 by Anthony Rucker


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