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Joan Garry Headshot

What the President is Missing on Gay Rights

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I know it seems odd. Ironic even. I was listening to the president's speech to the veterans on Omaha Beach, commemorating the anniversary of D-Day and it hit me. Funny I know. I was listening to him address military veterans and I realized what is missing in the president's approach to gay civil rights.

On Sunday June 6, he spelled out, as only he and Jon Favreau can, the significance of the day not as some pedantic history lesson but as a narrative. The tale of ordinary men who found themselves in the most extraordinary of circumstances. And sure, every president throws in an anecdote about someone in the audience but for Obama, it is more than that.

My kids have had a gifted middle school history teacher. No textbooks for Judy Berecski. She brings the lessons of history to life through the personal narrative, giving our kids the opportunity to walk in the shoes of slaves, of soldiers, of those expanding America to the west, to immigrants arriving to find a home in the United States. Why? Because she believes that without empathy as a lens, history is meaningless. What choices did those men and women have? What could they have done differently? What would you have done in that situation? It is through questions and discussions that our kids realized that history is simply the reading and telling of the most remarkable story.

When first asked about the criteria for selection of a Supreme Court Justice, the president caused a stir by using the word empathy. He wants justices who understand the impact of the law on real peoples' lives. Empathy is about personal connection, about caring. Not something you learn in a textbook. It is the most important ingredient in the human experience. Caring about your fellow man.

Whether it is an address in Cairo or at Buchenwald or in Philadelphia on the campaign trail, the president speaks so eloquently, so empathetically about the real impact of the fear of difference in our society.

This is exactly what has been missing from the president on gay rights. Empathy.

I believe with all my heart that the president is in the right place on all our issues and that we will see more progress in an Obama administration than we could hope for. The impressive record of the first 100 days (and the work since) tells me that.

But I haven't heard evidence of empathy. Yet. And its absence has begun to create an air of suspicion -- a growing sense among bloggers and activists -- that we once again were courted for our votes and our dollars and then promptly left on the back burner. Or maybe not on the stove at all.

We have a right to be impatient. Let's remember. It was not very long ago that the former POTUS stood before the American people and announced that he was pushing for an amendment to the Constitution banning marriage equality. It was not so long ago that we could be charged as criminals in many states for who we love. We may be on TV and even hosting the Tonys but let's be clear. We are second class citizens. We have every right to make noise and to push.

But what we need most of all is a president who illustrates that he cares about us. A president who honors our struggle, honors our plight, honors those among us who have been fighting the good fight. We need a president who can weave a heartfelt narrative that reminds the American people that equality for gay Americans is not simply an issue of law, of right and wrong. But that as members of a global community, we have personal connections and obligations to the people with whom we share this world.

The message must come, not from his head, from his vast understanding of Constitutional law, but from his heart. Why? First, without the inclusion of empathy in the narrative of history, we learn nothing. No one changes. And secondly, the gay community knows full well. We are controversial; Going to bat for gay and lesbian equality requires more than simply having logic and intellect on your side. We've learned. The hard way.

Leaders who have been successful in moving gay rights forward are right. Of course they are. But equally as important, they care. And they communicate that commitment by helping others to walk in our shoes.

Empathy. The president took heat when talking about this as a criterion for a Supreme Court Justice. But not from me. I thought it was absolutely spot on.

Now I'd like some empathy from the president. It would make the waiting easier. I could be more patient. And if he can weave empathy into a strategy of diplomacy I believe we will have elected a president who can lead us in tackling the most important civil rights issue of our time.

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