Advocate columnist James Kirchick says the United Nations is the wrong venue to air grievances that America is anti-gay, and that "classifying the 'human rights' situation for American gays alongside the plight of those in most other countries is stunning in its myopia, minimizing the grievous situations faced by gays in unfree societies." (Link to the Advocate column)
Author Archives: James Kirchick
In a Tuesday prime-time address to the nation, President Barack Obama will announce a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Eight years into the conflict, the fate of the central Asian country - which hosted al-Qaeda in the years leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and where Osama bin Laden is still suspected to be hiding - hangs in the balance. Coalition casualties have risen sharply since January, and public support for the war - which was near universal when it was first launched - has fallen to an all-time low. Before a veterans group in August, Obama termed Afghanistan a "war of necessity." Yet the fact that the president has waited almost four months since his handpicked general, Stanley A. McChrystal, entered a request for 40,000 additional troops to make this announcement has earned him a steady current of criticism from conservative commentators, who have accused him of "dithering" and indecisiveness.
It isn't just the right that has accused the president of not fulfilling his promises. Along with finishing the job in Afghanistan, another pledge Obama made during his campaign was that he would lift the military's ban on openly gay soldiers, "don't ask, don't tell." That this too has yet to materialize has earned the wrath of gay activists, some of whom are now calling for a boycott of the Democratic National Committee until the repeal passes.
There's an old saying in politics that you can't please all the people all of the time, yet the dual conundrums of Afghanistan and gays in the military present Obama with a unique opportunity to get further than most in accomplishing just that. To quiet down anger on the right caused by his hesitancy to ramp up America's commitment to Afghanistan, as well as consternation on the left due to the lack of progress on DADT repeal, here's one option for our beleaguered commander in chief: Dispatch an all openly gay unit to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. With an overstretched military worn out by repeated stop-loss orders and nearly 13,000 gay soldiers discharged from the armed forces since the enactment of DADT in 1994, this proposal attempts to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone. It will not please everyone entirely, but politics, after all, is the art of compromise. So hear this one out.
Many of the people arguing for a troop surge in Afghanistan - Republicans who warn that failure to stabilize the country would inevitably result in another attack on American soil - are also the loudest voices in favor of keeping the ban on openly gay soldiers. If we take them at their word that the safety and security of the American people is their highest priority, how could they oppose such a plan? They may not like the notion of openly gay people serving in the armed forces, but surely it's a better option than retreating from Afghanistan and letting the country fall to anarchy and the possible restoration of the Taliban.
Similarly, while a majority of Americans support repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the energy for that cause comes from liberals, the vast majority of whom, according to a succession of polls over the past few months, support withdrawal. They may blanch at the prospect of escalating our military effort in that country, but with no immediate repeal of DADT in sight, might they be willing to dampen their reflexive opposition to the exercise of American military might if doing so would allow openly gay soldiers to prove their mettle on the battlefield?
To be sure, the existence of an all-gay unit - and let's call it the "Leonard Matlovich Brigade," in honor of the gay Air Force officer whose fight to stay in the military, the first time a gay soldier ever publicly challenged the ban, made the cover of Time magazine in 1975 - may not necessarily disprove the chief claim against allowing openly homosexual soldiers to serve alongside heterosexual ones.
That argument posits that the mere presence of visible homosexuals would demean "unit cohesion." Ideally, openly gay soldiers should be allowed to fight alongside their straight comrades (in some cases they already do, thanks to more enlightened commanding officers who are willing to overlook the military's counterproductive policy). Such a development would prove the speciousness of this fear, a fear that has already been roundly rebutted by countless straight soldiers like Congressman Patrick Murphy, who has taken the lead on getting rid of DADT. But a half a loaf is better than nothing, and allowing gays to serve openly in any capacity would work to break down this antiquated prejudice.
The existence of an all-gay unit would put the lie to the charge that gays are effeminate and weak, and place supporters of the ban in a very difficult position. With openly gay soldiers risking their lives on the battlefield, and volunteering to do so, how could they persist in their support for keeping DADT intact? But the most satisfying aspect of this policy would be its effect on our Islamist enemies, who not so long ago were burying gays alive, crushing them under brick walls, and throwing them off the roofs of buildings (not to mention throwing acid on the faces of unveiled women and denying the right of girls to go to school). What humiliation, what shame these barbarians would endure if after every successful terrorist assassination accomplished by the Leonard Matlovich Brigade, U.S. Central Command issued a press release announcing that yet another Taliban fighter bit the dust at the hands of warrior homosexuals.
Since its inception in 2003, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief - PEPFAR - has become the largest public health program in history. Created by President George W. Bush, it has distributed nearly $50 billion worldwide, mostly in Africa, to prevent the spread of HIV and to treat its victims. Over the last five years, the fund has provided care for 3 million people and prevented an estimated 12 million new infections. Even Bush's harshest critics do not deny that PEPFAR has been a huge success in combating the AIDS epidemic.
In spite of all that the program has accomplished, however, a persistent problem remains: the promotion of homophobia by African governments receiving American aid money. In no nation is this problem more acute than in Uganda, one of 15 PEPFAR "focus" countries that collectively account for half of the world's HIV infections. Homosexuality is considered a taboo in most of Africa, yet few governments have gone to the lengths of Uganda's in punishing it. The consequences are devastating not only for the people directly affected by these adverse policies but for the fight against AIDS in general.
Uganda's campaign against homosexuality took a disturbing turn last month when a member of parliament in the nation's governing majority introduced legislation that would stiffen penalties for actual or perceived homosexual activity, which is already illegal under Ugandan law. According to the proposed law, "repeat offenders" could be sentenced to death, as would anyone engaging in a same-sex relationship in which one of the members is under the age of 18 or HIV-positive. Gay-rights advocacy would be illegal, and citizens would be compelled to report suspected homosexuals or those "promoting" homosexuality to police; if they failed to do so within 24 hours, they could also be punished.
International human rights groups have protested the bill, but their complaints have only made the government more defiant. "It is with joy we see that everyone is interested in what Uganda is doing, and it is an opportunity for Uganda to provide leadership where it matters most," the country's ethics and integrity minister has said.
Aside from its evident inhumanity, such draconian legislation will only do massive harm to HIV-prevention efforts. Gay men are an at-risk community, and they already face severe repression in most African countries. Because of conservative social mores and government repression, many are hesitant to come forward to get information regarding safe sexual practices. This bill could make the very discussion of condom use and HIV prevention for gay men illegal. By driving gays even further underground, such governmental homophobia only ensures that HIV will continue to spread unabated.
When a government actively encourages homophobia, the effect reverberates throughout society. Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, has accused European gays of coming to his country to "recruit" people into homosexuality. Ugandan newspapers and bloggers have seized on the proposed law to launch their own broadsides against gays, posting the names and photographs of individuals in Wild West-style "wanted" posters in print and online. A major tabloid, the Red Pepper, trumpeted an expose headlined "Top Homos in Uganda Named" as "a killer dossier, a heat-pounding and sensational masterpiece that largely exposes Uganda's shameless men and unabashed women that have deliberately exported the Western evils to our dear and sacred society."
From 2004 through 2008, Uganda received a total of $1.2 billion in PEPFAR money, and this year it is receiving $285 million more. Clearly, the United States has a great deal of leverage over the Ugandan government, and the American taxpayer should not be expected to fund a regime that targets a vulnerable minority for attack - an attack that will only render the vast amount of money that we have donated moot.
Earlier this month, members of Congress led by the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), and its ranking minority member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling on the U.S. "to convey to Ugandan leaders that this bill is appalling, reckless and should be withdrawn immediately." And in an open letter to Dr. Eric Goosby, the new U.S. global AIDS coordinator, Charles Francis, a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS during the Bush administration, asked, "Will we stand by and let national governments scapegoat a sexual minority for HIV/AIDS while receiving major funding for AIDS relief?"
Irresponsible and reprehensible behavior on the part of Ugandan officials should lead to a serious re-evaluation of U.S. policy and an ultimatum for the Ugandan government: It must desist in its promotion of deadly homophobia or say goodbye to the hundreds of millions of dollars it has received due to the generosity and goodwill of the American people.
Maybe it was the cold weather. Or perhaps it was the rival protest across the park competing for the attention of passerby. Or maybe it was the oddity of seeing Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, sitting smugly on a nearby bench, letting loose a sly smile as she watched the anguished faces of those standing before her.
But these features of the hastily arranged rally yesterday in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle - the focus for most of the city's earnest protests - just exacerbated what was already a depressing moment for gay rights this week, when Maine voters chose to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law on Tuesday. There was, predictably, a great deal of anger, including the occasional f bomb. But the assembled Washingtonians were well behaved; certainly to the extent that Gallagher could feel safe sitting quietly by herself to watch the proceedings. So much for her complaints, registered shrilly and frequently in the wake of the success of Proposition 8 last year, that gay rights activists physically "intimidate" her and other opponents of marriage equality. If there was a horde of angry, violent lesbians out for her head, they were nowhere to be found that chilly October evening.
But perhaps the most disheartening, and telling, aspect of Tuesday's loss was the rude awakening offered by President Barack Obama's silence. In December of last year, responding to complaints over his selection of the controversial Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, Obama pledged to be "a fierce advocate for gay and lesbian Americans." It was a promise he had made repeatedly on the campaign trail, to the extent that he raised more money from gay donors than any other presidential candidate in American history. Yet that much-ballyhooed advocacy was nowhere in sight these past few months, as those hoping to maintain Maine's legislatively enacted law permitting gay marriage fought tooth and nail to keep it on the books.
That silence was shared by Obama's former campaign organization, Organizing for America, since subsumed by the Democratic National Committee. As blogger John Aravosis discovered, OFA did not mention the initiative in any of its literature or e-mails sent out to its supporters in Maine. Never mind the president - as for the White House, it could only bring itself around to issuing a halfhearted statement after The Advocate's indefatigable Kerry Eleveld prodded them into offering some sort of explanation of where they stood. That mealymouthed statement, reiterating the president's logically untenable opposition to both gay marriage and ballot initiatives banning it, did not even mention Maine by name, nor did it include any reference to a similar battle in Washington state, where voters were given the opportunity to vote to uphold or repeal a law giving expanded domestic-partnership benefits to gay couples. That measure fortunately passed - the first time that state-level benefits have been granted to gays by popular vote - no thanks due, however, to the "fierce advocate" in the White House.
But Maine is where marriage was up for consideration, and it was there that the real gay rights battle of the year transpired. Maine is in solid blue New England territory, and given the recent marriage victories in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont, many predicted - hubristically - that similar fortune would befall them in the Pine Tree State.
That it did not is doubly depressing.
Still, the gloating by the likes of Gallagher will be short-lived. Yesterday, she told The New York Times, "Maine is one of the most secular states in the nation. It's socially liberal. They had a three-year head start to build their organization, and they outspent us two to one. If they can't win there, it really does tell you the majority of Americans are not on board with this gay marriage thing."
Gallagher may be right in her last assertion, but the number of voters opposing gay marriage declines with each successive poll, and all the data shows support for gay marriage trending higher with younger voters. According to census projections, Maine has the third-largest percentage of voters over the age of 65. Not only do these voters represent a critical mass of people who will be inclined to oppose gay marriage, they also will turn out to vote in higher numbers than younger citizens.
Such observations will not offer much consolation to the gay couples in Maine who saw such a basic civil right snatched from them by their fellow citizens. Nor will it provide succor to the nationwide advocates of marriage equality, gay and straight alike, who have banked so much on a state-by-state strategy. In the wake of the Maine defeat, many are beginning to question the wisdom of that approach and are looking with newfound hope to the federal lawsuit filed by superstar lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson challenging the legality of Proposition 8.
Bringing such a case to the Supreme Court is a risky plan that could reap massive dividends if it succeeds or tragic consequences if it fails. And while the local strategy may not have worked this time in Maine, it has worked thus far in several other states, and the results will only get better with time. Rest assured that the day will soon come when Maggie Gallagher won't be sitting quite so contentedly, smiling at the people whose rights she's spent so much effort to strip away.
Over the past few years, the government of Cuba has earned praise for an unlikely development: a campaign to improve the status of the island's gays. Standing at the forefront of this effort has been an even unlikelier figure: Mariela Castro EspÃn, the daughter of Raul Castro, who officially assumed the Cuban presidency last year after his brother Fidel fell ill. The latest entry in this narrative was a largely laudatory profile of EspÃn in The Advocate, which described her as a "champion" of the island's "gay and transgender community." EspÃn is director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, an organization which, according to its website, promotes "the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable, and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights."
Like most Latin American countries, Cuba has long been marked by regressive policies concerning homosexuality, due largely to a machismo culture that promotes a heroic masculinity portraying gays as weak and ill-suited to positions of leadership, whether in home or government. As EspÃn herself says, "Homophobia in Cuba is part of what makes you a 'man.'" But while EspÃn should be praised for her attempt to change Cuban attitudes about homosexuality, her advocacy in this realm ought not disabuse anyone of the fact that she is part and parcel of the architecture of repression that has governed the island for five painful decades.
Whatever pleasant sounding pieties she mouths about the dignity of gay people, EspÃn is a communist, an appellation that ought carry no less opprobrium today than it did before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Castro's Cuba it's still 1956, the year Soviet tanks crushed a peaceful democratic uprising in Hungary, one of the Cold War's darkest moments. Cuba remains the most repressive country in the Western hemisphere; Freedom House, the international human rights monitoring organization, lists it as the only "unfree" nation in the region (on a scale of one to seven - seven being the worst - Cuba earns a seven for political rights and six for civil liberties). The time warp is evident in a more literal sense: the few cars you'll see on the streets are decades old, except, of course, the late-model Mercedes that chauffeur around the island's elite.
It may seem strange that, in this day and age, one still has to mount a case against communism, but as long as a prominent member of the family that has ruled Cuba without interruption for 50 years is the subject of a flattering profile in a major publication, the work remains sadly necessary.
As a political system, communism has killed some 100 million people, according to The Black Book of Communism, a number that increases each day the North Korean slave state continues unabated. Castro's Cuba is responsible for a relatively minor portion of those victims, but that's only because "el jefe" has had just a small island's worth of people to oppress, imprison, and murder. And Castro's treatment of gays is particularly notorious: Not long after taking power, his regime herded thousands of gay men into concentration camps for "reeducation," where they were subjected to sexual humiliation and forced labor and were murdered en masse. In 1980, gay Cubans were among the 125,000 people - "scum," in the words of the Cuban government - whom Castro allowed to leave for U.S. shores in the famous Mariel Boatlift. To underscore what he thought of gay people, Castro made sure that an ample number of violent convicts and patients from mental asylums joined the departing masses.
As she related to The Advocate and elsewhere, EspÃn remains a fervent proponent of the "revolution" which has wreaked so much misery and poverty on Cuba, and she thus carries all of the malicious baggage that such an avowal entails. She says that her uncle is a "brilliant man." Considered the "first lady" of Cuba, she recently told a Russian government-controlled television station that "Cuba will stay socialist after Castro's death." She told The Advocate that, despite her "faith and hopes" in President Barack Obama, "he has shown no real democratic outreach to Cuba." On top of this, she patronized the American people by saying how "proud" she was of the "miracle brought about by" their electing "a young, intelligent black man." If only she cared for democracy and racial tolerance in her own nation, where there has never been an election, and where people of African descent face systematic and rampant discrimination by the government.
Moreover, EspÃn's activism is largely hype, and mostly the product of people who have a vested interested in putting a pleasant face on a despicable regime. For true believers, Cuba is the last bastion of an utterly discredited political and economic system. But with gay equality now a component of the "progressive" agenda, it has become painfully necessary to portray the Cuban regime as gay-friendly.
Yet it's difficult to point to any tangible benefits that EspÃn's activism has accrued, other than a decision last year by the Cuban government to dispense free sex-reassignment surgeries. This is a policy of dubious merit that affects an infinitesimally small number of people, and is better understood as a propaganda tool rather than a genuine sign of concern for the plight of gays. This is the sort of thing that's fodder for those who think that our health care system should emulate that of an island prison.
But no matter how genuine or fervent her promotion of gay rights may be, EspÃn's activism will ultimately go nowhere as long as Cuba remains communist. And that's because homophobia has been intrinsic to communism, which, like all totalitarian ideologies, seeks to perfect mankind, often through violent means. Doctrinaire communists view homosexuality as a bourgeois affliction standing in the way of our "progress" towards a utopian society in which there is no private property, war, or discord and all responsibilities are equally shared. Same-sex attraction is held as an expression of the "false consciousness" that distracts us from the class struggle.
Like Sean Penn, who has also emerged of late as a self-styled advocate for gay rights, Mariela Castro EspÃn has a serious blind spot. It is the failure, so pervasive and persistent throughout human history, to understand that no political system - regardless of how wonderful in theory or the marvelous claims it makes for itself - can be considered humane as long as it inherently denies fundamental rights like freedom of conscience and speech, the ability to practice religion, vote for one's leaders, and earn a living commensurate with one's talents and abilities.
"Being considered a lesbian would not be an insult to me," EspÃn told The Advocate. "Being considered corrupt would be." Her first concern is of but prurient interest. As for her second, by proudly embracing a moral stain as a badge of honor, it's far too late. Gay rights are human rights, and if one is not an advocate for human rights, as Mariela Castro is most certainly not, one cannot be an advocate for gay rights, no matter how well disposed toward gay and lesbian people one may be.
Let's posit, for the sake of argument, that Cuban gays truly earned equal rights. No doubt the Cuban regime's apologists would point to its supposedly "progressive" attitude, contrasting it favorably to the Christian yahoos who run the United States. But even if Cuba legalized gay marriage tomorrow - a highly dubious prospect - it would still be a dictatorship. No matter the degree to which the status of homosexuals in Cuba improves under the communist regime, Cuban gays - like Cuban straights - would still be thrown into prison for daring to tell an anti-Castro joke. They still would not be able to organize peaceful demonstrations against government policies, never mind vote in a free election. More fundamentally, they still would not be able to leave the island of their own volition.
What sort of freedom is this?
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.
Last month, former president Bill Clinton joined the increasing number of Democratic politicians who publicly back same-sex marriage. Granted, Clinton's endorsement - offered in response to a questioner at a Washington conference for liberal college activists - was heavily qualified: Clinton said he is "basically in support" of providing legal recognition to gay couples.
This latter-day epiphany from the man who signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions, earned warm praise from gay activists. "I personally support people doing what they want to do," Clinton said, and people seemed to believe his apparent change of heart.
Others, however, claimed to know that he has been for gay marriage all along. Kerry Eleveld, Washington correspondent for The Advocate, wrote that "no one ever really believed [Clinton] opposed marriage equality. Call it craven politics, but everyone knows Clinton signed DOMA into law before the '96 election to avoid a potential GOP family-values offensive at the ballot box." Eleveld and others contend that support for same-sex marriage among liberal elected officials is a given. It's just that pesky political exigencies prevent them from publicly expressing their "real" beliefs.
There's no doubt that part of Clinton's motivation for signing DOMA was to prevent the Republican Party from using it as a wedge issue. But whether or not that law went against his actual convictions, it is part of Clinton's legacy to the gay community, along with "don't ask, don't tell." Repealing both is the most important task of the gay rights movement today.
When it comes to same-sex marriage, the movement can't count on support from the current president either. When White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Clinton's comments, he told reporters that his boss "does not support" same-sex marriage. "He supports civil unions," Gibbs assured. And despite President Obama's statement that he opposes the ban on gays serving openly in the military, Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings (Fla.) last week said that the White House pressured him to withdraw an amendment that would have prohibited funds from being spent on investigating "don't ask, don't tell" violations.
Even if Obama does in fact believe in marriage equality, he hasn't done - and is unlikely to do - much to forward the cause. And apart from some toothless sniping from a handful of gay activists and donors, he seems to be getting away with it. In this way, the presumed (yet secret) good intentions of Democrats can wind up doing more harm than good: They tell the gay community that Democrats are at least better than the GOP, thus providing an excuse that can be employed endlessly while they stall.
This trust in covert backing from liberal elected officials is an article of faith among most supporters of same-sex marriage. In a recent interview with Newsweek, gay playwright Tony Kushner spoke of Obama's secret belief in the righteousness of same-sex marriage as if it were painfully obvious. "Pbbbht! Of course he's in favor of gay marriage!" Kushner exclaimed. His views were echoed by Steve Hildebrand, a gay political consultant who served as Obama's deputy national campaign director. "I do believe that in his heart he will fight his tail off until we've achieved full equality in the gay community," he told journalist Rex Wockner. I've lost track of the number of liberal friends and acquaintances, gay and straight alike, who assure me that Obama "really" supports same-sex marriage and, furthermore, that this point is obvious.
How can they be so sure? People want to like political leaders, and when someone as charismatic as Clinton or Obama comes along, it's easy to ignore the facts that get in the way of an idealized image. That liberal politicians are indifferent - if not outright opposed - to same-sex marriage stands at utter odds with liberals' notion of an enlightened community of like-minded progressives. "Does anybody actually believe that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama think that we shouldn't have - that this man who is a constitutional-law scholar - is it a complicated issue?" Kushner sputtered, as if anyone who disagreed were an imbecile.
Because people such as Kushner view political liberalism as a positive personality trait and not just a worldview, they assume that someone who opposed the Iraq war and sees himself as a "citizen of the world" would also believe in the right of gays to marry. People cannot conceive that such a cosmopolitan and eloquent man as Obama would disagree with them on an issue that they consider a no-brainer.
This is convenient for liberals because it allows them to deflect blame from politicians they like onto those they don't, namely conservatives, the sincerity of whose opposition to same-sex marriage they never challenge. If only Republicans desisted in their homophobia, this narrative goes, justifiably timid liberals would come out of their closets of prevarication, so to speak, and support gay marriage unambiguously.
Framing gay rights as a strictly partisan issue also allows liberals to obscure the awkward fact that while they are more likely than conservatives to support same-sex marriage, a key Democratic constituency, African Americans, overwhelmingly opposes it. Obama's history on the issue does have a complicating twist. On a 1996 Illinois Senate race questionnaire, Obama (or more likely a staffer) wrote, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." Liberals take from this revelation the assumption that Obama's apparent flip was insincere.
But there is nothing in his record since he became a national political figure that should give them any reason to think he will revert to his supposedly pro-gay-marriage position. And if Obama actually does believe in same-sex marriage, that makes his public opposition to it worse than it would be if he were genuinely opposed. How is it in any way reassuring to liberals to suppose that a politician agrees with them while selling them down the river? Even if Obama's apparent flip isn't genuine, he nonetheless acts as if it were, rendering his supposedly silent support worthless in tangible political terms. Whatever he "really" thinks, Obama's stance on gay marriage is virtually indistinguishable from that of John McCain.
For some time, liberal politicians have taken a largely wink-and-nod approach to gay issues. They've done so with the excuse that the culture must catch up before any progress can be made (an excuse that conveniently doesn't apply to other liberal interest groups, such as unions and trial lawyers, that do very well when Democrats are in power). Obama paid tribute to this timeworn tactic recently when he told gay activists at the White House: "I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, but by the promises my administration keeps. By the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."
Talking about "feelings" is a cuddly liberal pastime, and Obama's promise conjures up the phrase that Clinton famously entered into our political lexicon when he told an angry AIDS activist, "I feel your pain." Maybe now, when it comes to same-sex marriage, he finally does. But it would be nice to have a sitting president whose feelings translate into action.
The most that can be said about Bill Clinton's newfound (and feeble) belief in marriage equality is "Better late than never."
One would have expected the former president's change of heart to garner more media coverage than it has. Clinton is, after all, the only living ex-president to support same-sex marriage. Perhaps the lack of attention was attributable to a belated realization on the part of the media that political endorsements are overrated. Or maybe it's because the public is tired of hearing about gay marriage. Whatever the reason, I suspect that the press's woolgathering had something to do with the fact that a sizable portion of the population has finally come to the realization that most of the things that emerge from Bill Clinton's mouth are prevarications, hot air, outright lies, or some combination of the three. One can hope.
At an annual convention of liberal college activists held in Washington last week, Clinton was asked if he would publicly support efforts to enact same-sex marriage. "I'm basically in support," he answered. Asked if he personally believed in the cause, he replied "Yeah. I personally support people doing what they want to do. I think it's wrong for someone to stop someone else from doing that."
What eloquence! What moral conviction! Remember that these stirring words come from a man who, prior to the emergence of Barack Obama, was widely considered to be the greatest political communicator alive.
While few in the mainstream media seemed to care about Clinton's inarticulate and hedging announcement, it did come as news to gay activists. That's because when Clinton was last heard from on the issue in May, he said that his stance was "evolving." At least Clinton's "evolution" was faster than that of prehistoric man.
It bears repeating that the most pressing causes of the gay rights movement today - repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell" - are the result of problems he created as the 42nd president of the United States. And despite the manifold indignities that he inflicted upon countless gay Americans with his role in implementing these two laws, Clinton still refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part, never mind apologize.
Witness his angry and patronizing interview, so typical of his undignified behavior during the last Democratic presidential primary, with a group of college students assembled by MTV last year. Asked about his 1996 signing of DOMA, Clinton portrayed himself as some sort of hero who was actually doing gay people a favor by preventing the worse option of a constitutional amendment. But there was no talk of such an amendment in 1996, and plenty of Democrats voted against the law. If the decision that Clinton made in 1996 was so painstaking, why did he brag about it on Christian radio stations during the presidential campaign?
And Clinton has the gall to accuse Republicans of using gay issues for electoral gain!
To make his point, Clinton only mentioned the part of DOMA that allows states not to recognize marriages or civil unions performed in other states, giving credence to the specter of gays descending upon red America in search of marriage licenses. In so doing Clinton neglected to contend with the other and far more damaging aspect of DOMA, which forbids the federal government from bestowing the myriad rights and obligations (which the Government Accounting Office has estimated to number 1,138) that straight couples receive to same-sex couples.
Similarly, last January, Clinton ridiculed the notion that he shared any blame for the passage of "don't ask, don't tell" or that the statute is all that invidious.
" 'Don't ask, don't tell,' as articulated as I worked it out with Colin Powell, who was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meant literally that ... that people would be free to live their lives as long as they didn't go march in gay rights parades or go to gay bars in uniform ... in uniform ... and talk about it on duty, they would be all right. Now, as soon as he [Colin Powell] left, the antigay forces in the military started using it as an excuse to kick people out.'"
Discharges of gay soldiers rose under Clinton. If he was so concerned about the way the law was being implemented, he could have done something about it.
After leaving office Clinton added insult to injury. We also know that in 2004 he advised John Kerry to support not only the many state-level constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, but also the Federal Marriage Amendment championed by President George W. Bush. Five years later, with a series of states having legalized same-sex marriage, the polls decisively showing a generational surge in support for the cause, and - most important in terms of this discussion - the definitive end of the Clinton dynasty upon us, Bill Clinton wants us to know that he "basically" supports gay marriage.
Pardon me for being cool toward the latest tergiversations of this congenital liar and shameless opportunist.
The gay community has never come to terms with the true record of the Clinton White House, as was evident by the overwhelming support Hillary's primary bid received from gay men ... support so slavish and irrational that it pains me to conclude it was predicated on little else besides the woman's diva-like qualities.
Earlier this week the Freedom to Marry coalition issued a press release praising the former president. In their rush to extol him, however, gay activists should be wary. For the most important thing to know about Bill Clinton is that the man never takes a position based upon considerations of things like morality or justice. He takes positions based entirely upon a cold calculation of what will advance his political (and, of late, business) interests. If, for whatever reason, his cynical support for marriage equality gets in the way of his wife's political career or a shady business deal with an Arab oil sheik, Clinton will abandon the cause faster than he fled the 1992 campaign trail to carry out the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded black prisoner who had shot himself in the head after committing a double homicide.
To provide the most succinct and accurate description of the Clintons, I defer to someone who knows them all too well and who also happens to be the richest and most powerful gay man in America: David Geffen.
Explaining his surprise support for Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, the record producer told Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, "Everybody in politics lies, but [the Clintons] do it with such ease, it's troubling."
Geffen, who raised millions of dollars for the Clintons and twice slept in the Lincoln bedroom, came late to recognizing the mendaciousness of this couple.
Hopefully other gays will follow his lead. Better late than never.
Noel Coward's "Design for Living" - now in revival by the Shakespeare Theatre Company - shocked audiences when it premiered on Broadway in 1933. It's not hard to see why.
The play, about a polyandrous relationship between two men and a woman, makes no apologies for its liberationist view of sex and relationships and could hardly be more direct in its sympathetic presentation of gay attachment. "Design for Living" was considered so risque that Coward had to wait until 1939 before staging a production in London for fear of offending British censors.
Seen today, the play shocks, but for an altogether different reason: Its message is so outdated that it's bewildering why any theater would put it on except for its curatorial interest as a period artifact.
The story begins in a dilapidated Paris garret shared by Otto, a painter, and his lover Gilda, a sprightly, if aimless young interior designer who proudly expresses her view that marriage, at least for her, is "repellent." She wishes she could believe "in God, the Daily Mailand Mother India" but instead leads a life of carefree bohemianism and free love. Gilda, you see, isn't just in love with Otto. She's also in love with Leo, a wandering playwright who has just returned to Paris. This isn't a typical love triangle, however, in that Leo also is in love with Otto, and Otto is in love with them both. Together, they are waging a "private offensive against the moral code," in the words of a 1933 Time magazine cover story about Coward. The upholder of this code is Ernest Friedman, a stately and punctilious art dealer who faults Gilda for leading a "dreadfully untidy" life. (His first name isn't incidental.)
The trio's fragile harmony is upset by the unexpected and early return of Leo, who shares "an unpremeditated roll in the hay" with Gilda. Otto becomes distraught and furious when he discovers this infidelity, and the betrayers express what appears to be sincere guilt about "cheating" on him. Otto storms off, while Gilda follows Leo to London, where he soon becomes a very successful playwright and the toast of the town. (The play is loosely autobiographical; Coward had a similar, though nonsexual, relationship with the husband-and-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and the three performed together in the play's Broadway debut).
What makes "Design for Living" even more defiant of prewar social mores of its time is that the characters do not view their domestic arrangements as anything of which to be ashamed; to the contrary, it is society's expectations that they deem immoral. "I shouldn't feel cozy married!" Gilda tells Leo when he half-seriously proposes that they elope, if only to make gliding along the London society circuit less awkward. "It would upset my moral principles." Leo, for his part, confesses that there's "no use making any of us toe the line for long" when confronted with the prospect of matrimony.
This all made for very interesting stuff in the 1930s and could accurately be said to characterize a certain gay sensibility of the era. Decades before a concept like same-sex marriage was in the consciousness of gays, it was understandable that gay artists would mock the sort of conventional social arrangements that were closed off to them (unless, of course, they sublimated their nature). Indeed, those rare gays who sought to "couple" were mocked for "playing at" traditional heterosexual life, not just by straights but by their fellow "inverts."
Much of the "Design" protagonists' dialogue can be read as inchoate yet by now dated arguments for tolerance of homosexuality; Otto defends the threesome as immoral "only when measured up against other people's standards" and speaks of seeking "our own solutions for our own peculiar moral problems." In a line that the latter-day gay rights movement could borrow without alteration from Coward's script, Otto admonishes Gilda for worrying about societal disapproval by stating that their lives are "none of their business, we aren't doing any harm to anybody else."
The three lead characters were curiosities in the 1930s, so rare was the openly bisexual or gay person, never mind the proudly polyamorous. Today, however, they just come across as self-obsessed, vain and cruel.
"Design for Living" premiered in an era when traditional ideas about sex and the role of women in society were being challenged, and the play's notoriety almost surely had something to do with the audience's vicarious envy of the characters' ability to break free of oppressive conventions. In the ensuing 70-plus years, however, America has witnessed the wages of free love, and we've decided they're not pretty. The play's controversy is obsolete; there really is no serious constituency these days arguing for the virtue of non-monogamous relationships. And as much as gays have been cultural iconoclasts, it's difficult to imagine a leading gay playwright of Coward's artistic stature today endorsing the sort of message presented in "Design for Living."
Indeed, I don't think I'm speaking out of turn in my presumption that "Design for Living" would stick in the craw of most gays today. Its unsubtle conflation of polyandry and homosexuality as "lifestyles" equally deserving of social approval is the very sort of "slippery slope" argument proffered by religious conservatives to which gay marriage proponents so strenuously object.
The play is not as antiquated as art deco, swing dancing and other artifacts of the 1930s. It even might have served as a socially relevant statement in the 1960s, during the American cultural revolution, and as late as the 1970s or early 1980s, the age of gay liberation, when activists argued that frequent (and anonymous) sex with multiple partners was more than just a civil right; it was a fundamental part of being gay. AIDS made hash of that viewpoint, as did the general ideological maturation of a community that, while still fighting for equal rights, has earned a societal tolerance that neither Coward nor any gay person of his time ever could have imagined.
I suspect that today's more enlightened understanding of homosexuality as something wholly natural to the human experience and unthreatening to society had something to do with the audience's confused response to the play's fundamental moral darkness. This reaction was most apparent during the final scene, when Gilda must decide between her two young lovers and Ernest, whom she has married and with whom she has decamped to New York. In a sputtering and pathetic spectacle, Ernest condemns the play's putative heroes and their uninhibited ways, yelling that he "could never understand this disgusting three-sided erotic hotchpotch." Red in the face, he farcically trips on a stack of recently acquired paintings as he stomps furiously out of the room.
Until this point in the production, it isn't entirely clear which side in this fundamental dispute Coward will endorse. But by the end of the play, his ambition is obvious: a rejection of monogamy as a societal ideal in favor of whatever floats one's individual boat. As Ernest storms off the stage spewing invective like machine-gun fire, Leo, Otto and Gilda lie erotically curled over one another on the couch in a fit of hysterics, and we're meant to laugh with them in this victory of independence and bohemianism over bourgeois constrictions. But the audience at the performance I attended viewed this triumph with bewildered silence, and I have no reason to believe its reaction was in any way unique.
In times like these, with commentators of all political stripes bemoaning the divorce rate and speaking of out-of-wedlock birth rates with alarm, and when gays are fighting for the right to marry and join the nation's armed forces, as opposed to pursuing lives of sexual abandon, it is the studiously old-fashioned Ernest with whom we naturally sympathize, not the egotistical and emotionally frivolous Bright Young Things, no matter how glamorous and sophisticated they may seem. Here, an inverted adaptation of Marx's observation about the repetition of history makes sense: What's intended as farce winds up as tragedy.
No sooner had the supreme court of California issued its 6-1 ruling last week upholding the constitutionality of the voter-approved Proposition 8 than gay activists called for mass protests across the country. As legal experts pored over the decision on the courthouse steps, hundreds of demonstrators directed chants of "Shame on you, Shame on you" at the court's justices, four of whom, it should be remembered, ruled last May that the state's constitution obligated the government to allow same-sex couples to marry. That the legal reasoning for the court's decision to uphold Proposition 8 might have been sound - as the limiting of marriage rights to opposite-sex couples constitutes an "amendment" rather than a "revision" to the state's constitution and is thus subject to popular approval - did not factor into these preplanned rallies.
Emotion ruled triumphant.
This is not to downplay the legitimate frustration and sorrow of last Tuesday. The anger of gays nationwide - especially those in California, who saw their rights ripped away before their very eyes - is understandable. And publicly expressing that anger, albeit peacefully and with respect for those with opposing views, serves as a useful reminder to the country's straight majority that gay people face serious burdens due to the lack of equal protection under the law. For too many heterosexuals - especially those who do not count openly gay people among their family, friends, or coworkers - gay rights are an abstract subject, something to vote on once every four years.
But at this point, gay rights advocates in California have the opportunity to fulfill the inevitable promise of their movement: Convince the majority of their fellow citizens that their cause is just and win equality with a resounding - and democratic - victory.
To see the silver lining in last week's court decision, it's instructive to weigh the costs of the ruling against its (perhaps, to some, utterly inconceivable) benefits. Let's start with the bad news: Gay Californians have lost the right to marry. That's disappointing, but there is an even chance that Proposition 8 will be repealed by 2010, and if not then, 2012. For a variety of reasons - the increasing number of young people becoming part of the electorate, the slow acclimation of heterosexuals to gay people living normal lives - the inexorable trend of gay rights issues is progress toward the equality position.
But the best case for why equal marriage will soon become reality in the Golden State has nothing to do with changing voter demographics, sociology, or better organizing: It is the 18,000 gay couples whose marriages remain legally valid (some of these 18,000 are out-of-state, though just how many is unclear). Their loving commitments to one another, rearing of healthy children, and enriched involvement in their communities will be the best case for preserving and extending marriage equality to all of California's gays and will put to rest fears that allowing same-sex couples to marry will somehow bring the sky crashing down.
So let's keep things in perspective: The worst that gay Californians will suffer as a result of this ruling is the inability to marry for the next year and a half to three years, at most. Meanwhile, gays in California can still enter into domestic partnerships (as they have been able to since 2004), which afford "the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law" as marriage, excepting, of course, the voluminous federal benefits. The inevitable bestowal of marriage rights to same-sex couples in California will be only a change in name, at least until the federal government repeals the Defense of Marriage Act or decides to recognize state-sanctioned legal partnerships.
The obsession with winning court decisions obscures the reality of how civil rights struggles are ultimately won. "While Brown v. Board enunciated important values, real change came through the politically enacted Civil Rights Act of 1964," writes Yale law student and gay marriage supporter Aaron Zelinsky at The Huffington Post. He also reminds us that insidious laws like the Defense of Marriage Act and the military's ban on openly gay soldiers must be repealed legislatively, that is, by the people's elected representatives. Convincing citizens in the country's largest state of the justice behind marriage equality will make that job much easier.
How is forcing gay marriage advocates to the ballot box a boon rather than a chore? Winning equal marriage democratically in the country's largest state will help the national gay rights movement. Immediately, the attack on "activist judges" will be neutralized. Since last November the gay activist community has been awash in controversy over the manifold failures and incompetence of the No on 8 campaign. Now comes the opportunity to right those wrongs and perfect the working model of a statewide pro-gay initiative campaign, the likes of which can be replicated by activists in states across the country. And however "fatigued" voters may about the issue of gay marriage, in the words of Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton, that weariness is more likely to lend itself to support for what most people realize is its inevitable passage rather than continued opposition, which only ensures that the controversy is debated more and more.
Judging by the increasingly pathetic arguments of the anti-gay-marriage right, the momentum is well behind pro-equality forces. In the short time between the passage of Proposition 8 in November and the California supreme court's decision to uphold its enactment last week, Iowa, Maine, and Vermont legalized gay marriage and the New York State assembly passed a gay marriage bill championed by Gov. David Paterson. The New Hampshire legislature passed a marriage equality bill expected to become law this week after successful haggling between the governor and representatives. On Monday the Nevada legislature overrode the gubernatorial veto of a domestic-partnership bill, making it the 17th state to recognize same-sex unions. When the injustice of the status quo is so transparent, it can seem fruitless to counsel patience in a civil rights struggle. But in this case, determined patience in the short term will produce everlasting benefits.