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Can DADT's Repeal Help Obama Reclaim the LGBT Love?

Posted: 12/22/10 09:41 PM ET

When President Obama signed legislation repealing Don't Ask/Don't Tell (DADT), he fulfilled one of his key campaign promises to both the LGBT community and the entire nation. Yet while high-profile gay and lesbian pundits such as Rachel Maddow and Andrew Sullivan are roundly declaring the repeal "Obama's victory," there remains a segment of the LGBT community for whom this president can do little or no good.

Indeed, despite the president's monthslong maneuvering to end DADT's 17-year reign of terror, many LGBT voices are reducing his role to marginal, 11th-hour efforts to appease angry activists. And some are simply leaving President Obama out of the picture entirely.

Writing for The Daily Beast, feminist author Linda Hirshman offered gratitude to soldier groups like the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network but made no mention of the White House. Influential lesbian blogger Pam Spaulding thanked Senators Kay Hagen and Richard Burr along with Congressman Patrick Murphy, but had no appreciative words for the president.

Over at progressive site AmericaBlog, writer John Aravosis does thank Obama at the end of a long screed, but only with a tepid, "And even the "President, who finally got into gear (albeit a tad late) and made the calls necessary to make this happen." Long-time LGBT leader David Mixner offered little more than a lukewarm "the repeal of DADT would not have happened without Pres. Obama... he was clearly on our side." While Jim Burroway cleanly quips: "In the end, President Obama's strategy worked after all. But it worked not so much because it was a brilliant strategy but because he was lucky."

While a few individual writers hardly speak for the entire LGBT community, there's little doubt that the president has been vilified by many gay-stream leaders since his election two years ago. Yet considering the president's impressive record on LGBT issues -- from enacting hate-crimes legislation to extending benefits to federal employees and ending the ban on HIV-positive visitors entering the United States -- that anger seems confoundingly misdirected. After all, wasn't it President Clinton who approved both DADT in 1993 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) three years later -- two of the most regressive laws in the history of civil rights legislation. And weren't LGBT rights further imperiled under George Bush -- who infamously opposed extending hate-crimes legislation to protect LGBTs and promoted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution?

True, President Obama must still undo DOMA as well as pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to meet all of his LGBT campaign pledge. But considering he's two-for-two in less than two years, isn't it time Obama's gay-haters began showing him some love? Or at least move on from the notion that Obama is a "homophobe," a "bigot," an "enemy of the gays" -- and any of the other epithets routinely hurled against him.

"The president is obviously not a homophobe, but he is a pragmatist, someone who governs from the center," observes Jillian T. Weiss, a professor of law and society at Ramapo College of New Jersey who regularly writes about LGBT topics. "This drives people crazy, particularly folks at the margins, like activists solely focused on marriage equality," she adds. "For them anything less than this 'holy grail' could be construed as homophobia."

Although Pres. Obama once favored same-sex marriage, he now supports civil unions -- a position shared by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the LGBT favorite during the 2008 presidential campaign. Activists such as Spaulding regularly deride Obama's faith-based opposition to marriage-equality and his now infamous quote: "For me as a Christian, (marriage) is a sacred union. You know. God is in the mix." Indeed, that Obama is religious at all is often used by critics as proof of his anti-gay sentiments.

Yet with the Obamas clearly no more churchgoing than the Clintons before them, why has Bill and Hill's Christian faith escaped the same kind of scrutiny? It's simple, says Americablog's Aravosis: "Obama is the president, Hillary is not." Yet Aravosis also offers a more alarming explanation -- one echoed by fellow LGBT bloggers from Spaulding to Mixner: Obama is black -- or at least biracial. And Obama's race should not only make him sensitive to LGBT issue, but more sensitive than the white presidents before him. And this includes white presidents like Clinton responsible for the very regressive legislation our black president is currently saddled with repealing.

"Well-educated minorities (like Obama)... one would hope they would be more sensitive to other minorities, that is the expectation," Aravosis explains. "He should be trying harder because he is a minority."

Aravosis may merely be expressing a popular (yet unspoken) sentiment, but the notion that African-Americans should be held to a higher standard than their white counterparts is the very definition of racism itself. What's more, like most race(racist)-based ideologies, it places the president in a position where even his greatest pro-gay achievements will -- like the repeal of DADT -- never fully satisfy his critics. At best, Obama's victories will be rendered pyrrhic; at worst, repackaged as an act of generosity by his (mostly white) naysayers. "All of the activist heat (to repeal DADT) may actually have saved Obama's presidency," Aravosis says. "The repeal could still blow up in his face, but if implemented right it really might save him."

Despite the strong anti-Obama current among many in the LGBT chattering classes, the good news is that the LGBT masses clearly support the president. An October poll of almost 4,500 LGBTs by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR) found that 64 percent of respondees "strongly" or "somewhat" approved of President Obama's performance on LGBT issues. What's more, a similar figure want to "work with" rather than "protest" the White House on the path toward LGBT equality.

Perhaps, most telling of all, bloggers like Aravosis and Spaulding have virtually no impact on mainstream LGBT politics or thinking. As the GQR report noted, even the most well-followed LGBT blogs like Towleroad or Queerty were read by a mere three percent of respondents; Americablog by two percent, Spaulding's Pam's House Blend by a scant one percent.

The disconnect between the bloggers' perspectives and that of the LGBT masses is not necessarily surprising. After all, "there are multiple communities within the LGBT 'community'," says Juan Battle, professor of sociology, public health and urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "Some gay people approve of the president and some don't -- just like in the larger society."

Despite the disconnect, one person who certainly is reading Aravosis, Spaulding and Towle is Obama himself. He invited them to the White House for the DADT-repeal signing, along with activists such as former Lt. Dan Choi and GetEQUAL's Robin McGehee. As some of his harshest critics, the bloggers and activists are certain to continue demanding that Obama live up to the rest of his "fierce advocate" campaign pledges. Nonetheless, the invites confirm that the Obama White House has -- at least for this week -- reached a much needed détente in the battle to sway LGBT public opinion.

This article originally on The Root.

 

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