The scene at the White House East Room on June 29 was incongruous, if predictable. Nearly 200 gay leaders were assembled to hear the soothing words of the president, who has yet to do anything significant regarding the causes for which they lobby. But that didn't stop the activists from fawning over Barack Obama; the Washington Blade reported that cries of "I love you!" could be heard from the crowd. Such embarrassing expressions of infatuation were not owing to the open bar.
In the four decades that it has been politically active, the gay community has stood foursquare behind the Democratic Party. Gay identification with liberalism in general and the Democrats in particular is so strong that many conflate the success of the party with that of the movement. Gays overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates and pour millions of dollars into Democratic coffers. Homosexuality and political liberalism are inextricably intertwined in the popular consciousness. Even when Democrats support antigay measures - like the odious Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell," for which we have Bill Clinton to thank - gays rally to the party with votes and cash.
More telling than this ostensibly "pro-gay" president's dilatory strategy on moving legislation, however, is the mix of indignation and bewilderment on the part of so many gay activists. Given their unconditional support for Democrats, how can gays credibly claim to be surprised that Democratic politicians take us for granted? Why move pro-gay legislation forward when there are no consequences for doing nothing? The relationship between gays and Democrats is like battered wife syndrome. We keep coming back for more abuse.
"The facade of the gay movement has always been that Republicans are the bad guys," says Rich Tafel, the former executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. "Now that [Republicans] are completely powerless, the illusion that the Democrats are everything is being torn down." That's a wise perception as far as the cowardice and double-talk of the Democrats goes. But is there any hope for gays on the other side of the aisle?
In an ideal world the GOP would be a more hospitable place for the gay electorate. Battered in the 2008 congressional election and having waved goodbye to one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of polling, the Republican Party is now in the early stages of a long and vicious rebuilding phase. One would hope that as they examine the factors that have contributed to their downfall, Republicans will recognize that their positions on issues affecting gay Americans have played some part.
Unfortunately, with the internal disarray of the Log Cabin Republicans, the party is lacking the institutional apparatus to support pro-gay figures from within. Many gay Republicans understandably gave up on their party long ago; President Bush's support for the Federal Marriage Amendment was the last nail in the coffin for this beleaguered crew. The creation of the Log Cabin splinter group GOProud earlier this year should not be taken as a resurgence of gay support for Republicans, as it had more to do with personality differences between the leaders of both organizations than a newfound burst of conservatism among gays.
If Republican leaders were smart (which, to be sure, they show few signs of being), one of the first steps they could take to persuade younger voters of their electoral worthiness would be to drop active opposition to gay rights. If they can't be persuaded to do this on substantive grounds, then the polling numbers ought to convince them that their platform will soon prove to be a huge electoral liability.
That's because the political utility of gay bashing is past its peak. With each passing day more and more Americans see the sense of allowing same-sex couples to gain legal recognition for their relationships and patriotic gay Americans to serve openly in the nation's armed forces. Younger voters overwhelmingly support gay rights, and the more the party solidifies its reputation as a bulwark against this major societal shift, the greater will be the lasting damage to its reputation, much like Richard Nixon's southern strategy doomed the Republican Party - once the political home of African-Americans - with black voters. Adopting a more tolerant stance is also in the best traditions of a party that purports to stand for individual liberty, limited government, and the fundamental right of Americans to live their lives as they see fit - all tenets of the gay rights movement.
The more perceptive Republicans realize this. Take Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain. In a matter of months she's written, talked, and tweeted her way into becoming the most outspoken Republican advocate for gay rights, doing everything from a photo shoot on behalf of the No H8 campaign to raising money for the Trevor Project anti-suicide hotline to acting as the keynote speaker at this year's Log Cabin Republicans convention. Gays should welcome whatever support they can find within the ranks of the GOP, but at the end of the day McCain is the daughter of a failed presidential candidate who was never particularly popular among Republicans in the first place. She's not a potential party leader.
As for an actual elected official who could lead the party out of the antigay wilderness, such hopes rested largely on the shoulders of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, a Mormon who, in contrast to the leaders of his church, supports civil unions for gay couples. Earlier this year, however, in a brilliant political move that neutralized a rising star and potential rival, President Obama appointed Huntsman as his ambassador to China. And so the gays' loss is the country's gain.
In June former vice president Dick Cheney reiterated, however vaguely, his support for gay marriage, stating, "I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish." This was not exactly news; Cheney, after all, has a gay daughter, and he registered his opposition to the FMA in the 2004 presidential campaign. And it's slightly disingenuous for gay conservatives like those in GOProud to trumpet Cheney's halfhearted endorsement of gay marriage as proof that he's better on the issue than Obama. Cheney did nothing to press the cause of gay rights when he was in the White House. Now that he's liberated to speak his mind on a whole host of topics - something he's shown no hesitation in doing - he can only be bothered to talk about gay rights when pressed by reporters. If Cheney can launch a campaign attacking the Obama administration's antiterrorism policies, why can't he find time to rebut the antigay figures on the right wing of his own party who wish to treat his daughter as a second-class citizen? Surely, as a former secretary of Defense, Cheney has insights into the utility of "don't ask, don't tell"?
The apparent self-inflicted immolation of Sarah Palin's political career cannot be viewed as anything but a boon for gay rights. Though she has a scant record on the issues, as the GOP's vice-presidential candidate, Palin opposed the man at the top of the ticket with her support for the Federal Marriage Amendment. And her careerist attempt to position herself as the standard-bearer of the party's socially conservative wing suggests that she would effortlessly embrace its antigay politics were she to run for national office. But even with Palin out of the picture (for now), there's little reason to be hopeful about the 2012 GOP field. Front-runner Mitt Romney cemented his reputation as a flip-flopper largely due to his cynical positioning as a "pro-family" candidate during the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, trumpeting his opposition to gay marriage during his years as Massachusetts governor to win over evangelicals wary of his Mormonism. Mike Huckabee, another 2012 contender, campaigned on explicitly conservative Christian themes, while Newt Gingrich railed about "gay and secular fascism" in the wake of Proposition 8.
So is a gay-friendly GOP too much to hope for? Probably, at least in the near future. But just because the Republican Party shows little sign of moderating does not mean that Democrats should get a free ride, and the decision by some major gay activists and donors to boycott a June DNC fund-raiser is a welcome development. Obama has delivered major speeches on divisive topics like race and abortion, speeches that, unlike so much political pabulum these days, made Americans think. Why can't he deliver a White House address tearing down the last acceptable social prejudice? His unique station as the nation's first African-American president provides him with a historic opportunity to do just that.
Divining what the president might say were he inclined to deliver such a game-changing speech is not difficult; a recent proclamation he issued celebrating June as LGBT Pride Month contained a few hints. "As long as the promise of equality for all remains unfulfilled," Obama declared, "all Americans are affected." By framing the lack of equality for gays as an issue that affects all citizens - and not just those directly affected by discriminatory laws - the president went further than any of his predecessors in emphasizing the fundamental injustice of the status quo, and he intimated that his sweeping promise of "change" will also benefit gay people. As a candidate, Obama complained about those who criticized his campaign as offering "just words." But words are all he's offered thus far, leading us to the conclusion that the conflation of the Democratic Party's interests and those of the gay rights movement is a status quo equally in need of change.