There's a fierce debate in the LGBT community over Barack Obama's signing the Presidential Memorandum on Federal Benefits and Non-Discrimination Wednesday. Some think the signing was "historic" and a sincere symbol of Obama's true commitment to equal rights for lesbian and gay Americans.
Others think that's bull and are angrier than ever at the man they believed in, worked hard to elect and now feel betrayed by. Once again, the fundamental equality promised as a birthright to all American citizens -- except those who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender -- has been kicked down the road for some promised future consideration.
Even Obama -- a constitutional scholar and former community organizer -- noted at the end of the four-minute signing ceremony that LGBT Americans are official second- class citizens:
"It's a day that marks a historic step towards the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step. Among the steps we have not yet taken is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. I believe it's discriminatory, I think it interferes with states' rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it.
We've got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally; to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms; and to bring about that more perfect union. I'm committed to these efforts, and I pledge to work tirelessly on behalf of these issues in the months and years to come."
According to some legal scholars, Obama was constrained by the Defense of Marriage Act -- DOMA -- to provide only limited benefits to LGBT federal employees, which did not include health care benefits. However, there is some confusion, considering, for instance, what the New York Times wrote:
"In California, two federal appeals court judges said that employees of their court were entitled to health benefits for their same-sex partners under the program that insures millions of federal workers. But the federal Office of Personnel Management has instructed insurers not to provide the benefits ordered by the judges, citing a 1996 law, the Defense of Marriage Act."
It's true that the signing was "historic" -- having a bunch of gay people allowed in the Oval Office -- much less having a president "pledge to work tirelessly on behalf of these issues [discrimination against LGBT people] in the months and years to come."
Two problems: 1) after the Department of Justice filed a brief supporting DOMA, LGBT people are having a very hard time believing Barack Obama anymore. His flip flop from full support for marriage equality as a candidate in 1996 to his opposition in 2008 doesn't help; and 2) Obama kicked us over to Congress, which is still cowed by threats from right wing Republicans. A new CBS News poll, for instance, finds that 63% of Americans support some form of legal recognition for same sex couples -- but about one third oppose such recognition. Guess which percentage wins in Congress.
We remain an easily dismissed "social issue" to be dealt with at some more convenient time -- rather than real flesh and blood human beings whose very inequality is a blight on the promise of America.
And now the president says the only way for LGBT people to secure the everyday rights granted to heterosexuals is through Congress.
We're screwed. The Democratically-controlled Congress talks a good game to get LGBT votes and money -- but they don't have much to show for LGBT loyalty.
Consider, for instance, all the back and forth on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) reports that 255 gay and lesbian servicemembers have been discharged under Obama and the 111th Congress. And, according to a June 5
Gallup Poll, 69% of Americans support lesbians and gay men serving opening in the military -- with a major shift in the attitudes of conservatives and weekly churchgoers. And the
U.S. Conference of Mayors just passed a resolution Monday calling for full equality of LGBT Americans, including a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
But Obama failed to mention that the memorandum he signed does not cover lesbian and gay service members, which SLDN pointed out. "Obama said he wants to 'retain the best talent' to serve our country. Yet he won't speak out publicly against DADT, the law that fires the best and brightest from the military because they're gay or lesbian. We urge him to break his continued silence on DADT and endorse repeal legislation in the House, or send up his own language to Capitol Hill," SLDN said in a statement.
And while a bill to repeal DADT languishes in the House, at a news conference Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said he has no plans to introduce a bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" in the Senate, according to Think Progress. "I haven't identified any sponsors," he said. "My hope is that it can be done administratively." Obama says it needs Congressional action.
Reid's office clarified his statement with this:
"While we do not have a Don't Ask Don't Tell bill introduced in the Senate yet, a number of Senators are working on an approach to get it repealed. We would welcome a legislative proposal from the White House on repeal so as to provide clear guidance on what the President would like to see and when. Working together, I believe we can find the time to get repeal done in this Congress."
Oh, and Reid added, "If the House moves on this, I would be happy to take it up."
Well, maybe not totally. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
just wrote on Huffington Post that:
"I am firmly committed to repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. To that end, I am working closely with Congressman Murphy and Senator Kennedy's offices to develop support for repeal legislation and will be among the original co-sponsors of the bill when it's introduced. In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to work with Lt. Choi to repair the damage that has been done to his career and spare thousands of innocent, brave men and women, from the same injustice."
So where are we? A few years ago, then DNC chair Howard Dean told me that LGBT Democrats were second only in size and loyalty to African Americans. And now LGBTs are sick and tired of waiting and riled over the pittance their time, money and loyalty has earned them.
Now even the checkbook activists are pissed. Longtime politico David Mixner and Marty Rouse of the Human Rights Campaign pulled out of next week's LGBT fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee over the DOMA brief.
And rich and prominent gay businessman Bruce Bastian told the Washington Blade that he is not only pulling out of the fundraising -- starring Vice President Joe Biden -- but he's no longer donating to the DNC.
"I will continue to support certain congressmen, congresswomen and senators whom I believe will continue to fight for our rights, but I don't think blanket donations to the Democratic Party right now are justified, at least not in my book," Bastian said. "The LGBT community raised a lot of money in support for Obama, and, I think he has to have the courage -- well, not just him -- but, I think the Democratic Party now has to have the courage to fight back, and when they do, they'll have my support."
Wealthy investor David Bohnett, who made a large DNC contribution earlier this year, told me something similar:
"For several years we have made significant investments in individual US Senate and House races, along with state level candidates who support same sex marriage and family equality. We are also eager to continue our substantial commitment to the DNC when we see tangible commitments with timelines to repeal DOMA, Don't Ask Don't Tell, and support marriage equality at the federal level. We must hold President Obama accountable to all of his campaign promises for change, including the repeal of DOMA and Don't Ask Don't Tell," Bohnett said. "We hold everyone accountable to support full LGBT equality, but more so those who, like President Obama, have made specific promises on our issues."
On Tuesday, celebrating the one year anniversary of her legal marriage to Diane Olson in California, Robin Tyler announced she's had enough and she's "divorcing" the Democratic Party.
"The LGBT community is like a battered wife. We constantly get beaten, degraded and raped by the Democratic Party. Then, once every 2 years, when they need us, they promise us everything and treat us like human beings. So we mutter the mantra, 'but if we don't support them, the Republicans will get in because of us.' If we stop supporting the Democratic Party, the Republicans will get in because of the Democratic Party and their abusive relationship with us.
So when are we going to stop being the victims of the Democratic Party, step out, and act not just like survivors, but begin to really fight back? All the marches in the world and all the protests will not count until we are able to let go and step out.
This is the advice given to people who are in an abusive relationship. This is what we must do. Or the echo of our crying and our pain and our rage will only be heard by us -- until we have the courage and the wisdom to Divorce the Democrats in the next national election."
Tyler co-founded the successful online campaign StopDrLaura.com and the national "Day of Decision" hub where protesters could post actions around the California Supreme Court ruling on Prop 8. She is developing a new website called DivorcetheDemocrats.org where she is mounting an online pledge to take money that LGBTs and allies might have given to the DNC and re-distribute it to LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations that need help, as well as efforts in California and Maine to deal with marriage ballot initiatives. The site would also call for a "comprehensive" LGBT civil rights bill, instead of the incremental pieces of legislation for which the LGBT community has had to beg and wait until it is deemed convenient for consideration.
What does this mean for 2010? Who knows. But the sheen is off the Dream Machine known as Barack Obama. And Congress and the DNC -- well, Tim Kaine is no Howard Dean -- he's made no real effort to reach out to LGBTs outside the Beltway. And that Obama for America online money pitch for the DNC may also dry up.
And watch for challenges to conservative or do-nothing Democrats such as Peter Mathews' challenge to Laura Richardson in California's 37th District, which includes heavily gay-populated Long Beach.
The statewide LGBT lobbying group Equality California has raised the bar -- money and endorsements only for candidates who support marriage equality. And all those politicians, including those who twice signed the state marriage bill, have been re-elected.
Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors told me:
"EQCA has had a longstanding policy not to endorse candidates - Democrats or Republicans - who do not support true equality. That includes marriage. That includes transgender equality. It is really simple -- either a candidate supports true equality for LGBT Americans or they don't. There is no such thing as partial equality. EQCA didn't endorse Obama because he was out there saying he opposed our right to civil marriage. Until our community stops endorsing, giving money to and voting for Democrats who do not support our equality, they will continue to pander to us and then not deliver. It is time to call the question."
Will gays divorce the Democrats? Will they stay home and withhold funds or actively get involved with a local progressive for whom equality is as essential as breathing instead of a social issue about which they must be "educated?"
One thing is certain: gay people want our voice and our vote to count. Otherwise, the democracy this republic espouses is just as much a sham as those rigged elections we decry in other countries.
Follow Karen Ocamb on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KarenOcamb