White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett said and did the right thing to the mother of 14 year old Justin Aaberg whose suicide after relentless homophobic bullying sparked national rage. She met her backstage at a Human Rights Campaign event. She offered compassion, condolence, regret, and firm support to the mother. But Jarrett's sincere and heartfelt support for Aaberg wasn't enough. She uttered two fatal words that dumped her on the hot seat with gay groups. Her two words were "lifestyle choice" to describe the support Aaberg's classmates gave him. Jarrett scrambled fast and did a profuse mea culpa for implying that Aaberg's sexual preference was a choice.
Jarrett should have saved the apology. Her record in support of gay issues and LGBT organizations is impeccable. This should have rendered her words at best a personal view at worst simply an inadvertent characterization.
Geneticists, scientists and behaviorists have waged passionate debate over whether sexual preference is a choice or genetically endowed. The hard truth--at least so far-- is that it's both. Studies have shown that sexual orientation tends to cluster in families, and that extended families may share similar child-rearing practices, religion and other beliefs that could also influence sexual orientation. DNA research and studies of identical twins to determine nature or nurture on sexual preference has been a mixed bag with no conclusive answer. Researchers with no religious or ideological ax to grind agree that there are several genes that interact with non genetic factors, including psychological and social influences, to determine sexual orientation. In other words,
some men and women chose same sexual preference solely because this is their preference whether there's a genetic predisposition or not. To pillory Jarrett for this characterization goes way off the deep end and badly misses the point that national attention, focus and action must be on holding parents, educators, law enforcement, and policymakers to the fire to take homophobic bullying seriously. It's a deadly threat to countless numbers of adolescents and must be stopped. This and only this was Jarrett's message. And this and only this should be ample reason for gay groups to applaud Jarrett.
But let's be realistic. Jarrett was not dumped on the hot seat solely for her use of the words "lifestyle choice" to describe Aaberg. She was there in part because of whom she is and what she represents. The whom and the what is the White House. And some gay groups have been ticked at President Obama for a while because of his less than full throttle push to dump DADT, and his still deep ambivalence about gay marriage. This is just as much a pity as plopping Jarrett on the hot set for her words.
Obama is by far the best friend that gays could have in the White House. He backed gay rights in speeches and legislation 18 times before he grabbed the White House. He showed the same support and sensitivity and courage in his appointments, including the appointment of David Heubner, the first openly gay person as ambassador to New Zealand. He's only the second president to speak at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign.
The one other stumbling block that the gay rights activists that pound Obama must come to grips with and that is that a majority of blacks still bristle at the notion that the fight to legalize gay marriage is in any way comparable to the fight for black rights. Polls show that more Americans than ever say that they support civil rights for gays, and a torrent of gay themed TV shows present non-stereotypical depictions of gays. However, this increased tolerance has not dissipated the hostility that far too many blacks feel toward gay marriage. Gay rights activists badly missed this when they blew off black civil rights and community activists in their battle against California's anti gay initiative, Proposition 8.
Obama and Jarrett hardly fit that bill They were staunch opponents of the initiative, and would oppose any other anti-gay measures. Their stance is keeping with the view that bigotry against gays is the single biggest thing that creates the climate that drives young men such as Aaberg to kill themselves. Jarrett made that point forcefully and compassionately and challenged others to do the same. She owes gay groups no apology.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk show on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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