It Could Have Been Worse

For many gay people, this year began with high hopes following the election and inauguration of President Barack Obama who had promised "change we can believe in." But the enthusiasm and hope seemed gradually to deflate with the passage of weeks and months in which Obama concerned himself with the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing debate over health care. There seemed no movement on any gay-related issues.

But then toward the end of the year there were signs that gays had not been entirely forgotten. The ban on HIV-infected visitors and immigrants was lifted. Health benefits for domestic partners of gay federal employees was proposed in Congress and is given a "chance" of passage. The Justice Department announced that it would not prosecute people for possession of medical marijuana in states that permitted it. And a gay-inclusive hate crimes provision was slipped into a defense authorization bill.

Except for the first there is little evidence pointing to Obama as the person prompting any of these changes, but most of them certainly would not have happened under President George Bush, or under John McCain had he been elected president in 2008.

Although gay organizations have been pushing for hate crimes legislation for several years, from what I have seen the issue never seemed to catch fire with the gay population at large. The chief issues for gays have become the irrational and insulting gay exclusion policy of the military and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act barring federal recognition and benefits for legally married same-sex partners. Obama says he opposes both policies, but so far there has been no evidence of movement on either issue.

The narrow loss of marriage rights in Maine felt like a kick in the stomach. But the narrow victory of a measure in Washington state to expand domestic partner rights was a comparative bright spot. In that connection, let us not forget that the nation's largest Lutheran body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, last summer voted to approve the ordination of people in same-sex relationships. This is good news even for nonbelievers because America is still a largely religious country and the culture often takes its tone from what its churches say and do. So this is an important move toward the legitimacy of gay relationships.

What now? You would think that 31 straight losses in votes on gay marriage would be a clue to gay activists; and the victory for domestic partnerships would suggest a path to follow. But now activists in New York state are still trying to persuade the legislature to approve gay marriage there. A final positive vote looks increasingly doubtful. I'd like gay marriage as much as the next gay person, but it doesn't look like it is going to happen anywhere for a few years. Americans seem a less opposed to civil unions. So maybe we should take what we can get right now while we continue to work for our ultimate goal.

Americans' attitudes toward gays have moved slowly in a positive direction by about one half to one percent a year for the last several years. In a few years in most states we should have public support for most of our goals. Much of this is the result of the slow replacement of older anti-gay voters by younger, more gay-positive voters.

Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to influence the military's anti-gay policy. The initiative to end "Don't Ask, Don't tell" will probably have to come from within the military itself in signals to Congress. But the military is not immune to the trends in the civilian world, so every gain we make in the civilian sphere ultimately shows up the military sphere. And the military in turn is not immune to pressure from Congress. So pressuring Congress is one indirect route to follow.

Things have suddenly become interesting again.

3 Comments for “It Could Have Been Worse”

  1. posted by Dan L on

    You identify only two real accomplishments this year: the lifting of the HIV travel ban (very welcome) and the passage of hate crimes legislation (of exceedingly dubious value).

    With respect to the lifting of the HIV travel ban, your assertion that it would not have happened under Bush is not mere mistake speculation, it is mistaken fact. The legislation providing for the lifting of the HIV travel ban was signed into law in July 2008 by none other than President George W. Bush–and it passed with his urging and support (and with that of Senator McCain as well). That it took so long for that legislation to be implemented is entirely a question of bureaucratic inertia. If implementing that law were truly a priority for the Obama administration, pressure would have been applied to implement it urgently in the first few months of his presidency, so plainly it wasn’t. Instead, it followed the regular, slow bureaucratic channels. That it would have taken any longer for McCain to have implemented it is an exceptionally dubious contention.

    As for hate crimes, I’m not sure I even consider that a real accomplishment. With respect to its passage, it’s true that McCain opposes all hate crimes legislation, to be sure (a position share by, among others, Andrew Sullivan). That said, it bears remembering that the hate crimes legislation that passed was attached to a must-pass defense appropriations bill. Personally, I think that a President McCain would have probably signed the bill despite his misgivings rather than imperil funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So in all probability, that probably would have passed as well.

    This, to me, is the metric of the president’s utter failure to keep its promises to the gay community: so far, we’d have been just as well off under Bush or McCain as we have been under Obama.

  2. posted by BJ inPa. on

    I agree the best we can hope for is the limited rights civil unions provide. Obama has not forgotten about us. He is preoccupied with other things right now.

  3. posted by Joel Thoman on

    I think that anyone waiting for Obama to keep his promises for gays will hear a resurgence in the rhetoric around 2011 just in time for his re-election bid. If it was such an important issue, he could do something about it now. It would actually be better for him now, given the difficulty the Health Care bill is having. Democrats have majorities in both houses, but still nothing is getting done. John McCain or George W Bush wouldn’t have done much of these things either, but at least they wouldn’t have made promises to do so. Maybe in the next election the gays will wise up, and stop buying into the BS promises. Both Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Defense of Marriage Act were passed under Bill Clinton.

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