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Gay Rights Activists' Outlook Somber As Euphoria Over DADT Repeal Subsides

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NEW HAVEN -- The long-awaited repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy marked a modern day civil rights milestone. But while activists and like-minded pols at first celebrated an achievement long in the offing, that cheeriness has quickly been replaced by political somberness.

Whereas conventional wisdom holds that legislative victories beget future ones, there was no clear sense that the president's signing of DADT's repeal would have such a domino effect. The battle over the military's policies towards gay servicemembers is not over, rather it has been brought to a different stage, one focused heavily on certification and proper implementation. And while that one particular win was rapturously sweet, the next set of battles seem likely to be just as, if not more, painstakingly difficult and emotionally draining.

"The debate the country was forced to have on this issue will help on other LGBT issues going forward. It was a very healthy conversation," said Winnie Stachelberg Senior Vice President for External Affairs at the Center for American Progress. But, she added, "I think that we have to be realistic that the numbers in the Senate and conservative control of the House makes it really difficult if not impossible to pass and have signed into law legislation ... But if you are an advocate you wake up every day trying to figure out how to get it done."

How to get it done, however, is not entirely clear. Nor for the matter is what needs to be prioritized and who will take the lead in doing it. Among political interest groups, the gay rights community is fairly notorious for its split in personalities and for disagreements over strategy and tactics. That DADT was repealed despite the infighting was, as one top gay rights operative told the Huffington Post, "basically, a miracle."

Understanding that this type of activist alchemy is not a recipe for success, there have been rumors (not confirmed) swirling of a major meeting of key stakeholders being set for early next year. But even those who would be brought to the table don't see greater synergy on the horizon.

"I'm not seeing anything positive at this point," said John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog.com and one of the more prominent, forceful gay rights activists. "The problem I think people don't realize is that a lot of the protests happened because of [the Center for American Progress] and [Human Rights Campaign]. People thought that they were aiding and abetting this administration when they were not giving us very positive answers about moving ahead ... How do you move together as one when the concern of many in the community is that these groups are enabling this administration's bad strategy?"

If Aravosis's sentiments reflect a distrust among some gay rights activists for the institutional players -- there were, he insisted, conversations about "whether to shut down and protest CAP or HRC" -- it's worth noting that the street goes two ways. Vigor, after all, is only useful to the extent that it affects the whip count.

"I think having several voices in the [DADT] debate was a strength," said Aubrey Sarvis executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "I think what possibly could have been more effective would be if we had better coordination. But the reality is, today, with technology and individuals determined to be a player in the debate, I don't know that we will see the days again of one central coordinate strategy or headquarters. So you can have several players with their laptops beating their chest and suggesting what all the established players should be doing but at the end of the day if they don't bring any votes to the table their impact is questionable."

And herein lies the problem. Even if the institutional players and the vocal activists found blissful synchronicity, they can't change the math of the current Congress. At one point, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, was viewed as a more promising legislative vehicle than DADT repeal. Today, few gay rights advocates see it as having the votes necessary for passage. Overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, has even less traction in the incoming Congress.

"Anyone with a realistic view realizes we wont get things done legislatively during the next two years," said the top gay rights operative. "And if you look down the road it could be ten years we don't get anything done legislatively if we have to depend on Democrats solely."

All of which is not to say that the gay rights community is resigned to political inertia. There are other vehicles for progress.

At the start of the Obama administration, a list of 82 executive actions was put together detailing what the president could get done without the legislative branch. That list has since disappeared, owing, Aravosis explained, to the fact that activists would often point to it as evidence of Obama's shortcomings on their issues. But Obama did tackle some of the 82; for instance, revising hospital visitation rights. The rest of them, such as the creation of better census-styled data on the LGBT community, would quickly become points of contention if it became clear that the White House was simply sitting on its hands.

There are, in addition, small pieces of legislation that Congress might be more inclined to consider, down to simple, straightforward revisions to the tax code. But the pie-in-the-sky objectives, activists admit, will only come through one avenue: the courts.

"The legal cases are critical to the movement and I think as we saw with the repeal with Don't Ask Don't Tell you need a multi-prong approach for equality to the gay community," said Stachelberg. "The way the court cases have evolved and unfolded they have driven attention to these issues in an important way."

There are, currently, two major cases are making their way through the judicial system, one challenging the constitutionality of DOMA, the other challenging the constitutionality of California's gay-marriage ban. Either could end up at the Supreme Court. One, certainly, is expected.

Whether five members of that body can, ultimately, be persuaded one way or the other on the issue of marriage is, at this juncture, fodder for Court watchers. To bolster their case, however, the gay rights community has set up top-notch legal advocacy groups, with the helping hand (and checkbook) of some prominent Republicans. It is, perhaps, the most galvanizing issue on the gay rights docket. But even on this front, the community's somberness is hard to ignore.

The president's unwillingness to fully embrace marriage equality, for starters, has taken its toll, dividing the gay rights community over the issue of how hard the White House should or can be lobbied.

"Marriage unfortunately for the president will be a big deal," predicted Aravosis. "People are not letting go of his comments on marriage. People are no longer willing to give them a pass on marriage ... It will be an issue for Obama's reelect with the community."

The more dispirited skepticism, however, has nothing to do with Obama; rather it's driven by concern that the political will and public support simply exist to make a court decision stick.

"I think with respect to marriage, according to the polls I see there is not yet this overwhelming support among the American people for marriage," said Sarvis. "We have to keep educating the American public about these... We have to find a way to keep telling the story and keep putting the faces on the initiative whether it is marriage or eliminating DOMA."

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