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Keli Goff

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Will Rev. Martin Luther King Inspire President Obama to 'Evolve' on LGBT Rights?

Posted: 05/07/2012 11:58 pm

Days ago civil rights legend Julian Bond was honored at an all-star gala featuring tributes from Dave Matthews, Wanda Sykes, Stephen Colbert, and others. In addition to celebrating Bond's contributions to the fight for racial equality, the evening served as a fundraiser for a professorship to be endowed in his honor at the University of Virginia. The endowment will ensure that courses on the history of the civil rights movement continue to be taught long after Bond's retirement, an increasingly urgent concern, given that studies show that an alarming number of young people are blissfully unaware of the movement and its leaders. But the evening served another purpose: Bond was celebrated for being a trailblazer for his leadership on the issue of LGBT rights.

A number of high-profile contributors for the evening, among them news anchor Anderson Cooper and openly gay (and hysterical) comedian Kate Clinton, specifically cited Bond's courage on the issue of LGBT rights -- long before it was fashionable -- as being a cornerstone of his legacy. Yet while Bond may have been one of the first civil rights leaders to come out publicly in favor of LGBT rights, he is certainly not the only one. Congressman John Lewis and Coretta Scott King are among the luminaries to voice their support for equality for LGBT Americans. Before her death King was unwavering on the issue, saying, "Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union," she said. "A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages." (Click here to read my interviews with various civil rights leaders on LGBT rights.)

Coretta Scott King's embrace of LGBT rights put her at odds with members of her own family, among them her niece Alveda King, a vocal anti-gay activist, and daughter Rev. Bernice King, who cancelled a scheduled interview with me regarding the new biography of her mother just minutes before it was to take place, when informed that I would be asking about LGBT rights. The reason I was particularly interested in asking King about the topic was that her recent public comments seem to indicate that she is "evolving" on the issue. Sound familiar?

Vice President Joe Biden sent the media world into a tizzy when he announced his own "evolution" on gay marriage, saying on Meet the Press, "I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that."

Shortly thereafter the same criticisms that have haunted the Obama administration since before he took the oath of office began coming from the LGBT community: "What's taking the president so long to 'evolve'?" And yet it needs to be said (by someone, because it seems that absolutely no leader in the LGBT community is willing to say it): This president has done more for gays and lesbians than any other. Not only has he appointed more openly gay elected officials than any other president, but he called on the Department of Health and Human Services to order hospitals to permit visitation and decision-making rights for gay and lesbian couples, one of the primary concerns of LGBT couples unable to marry. He signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, ordering the Justice Department not to defend it. (It's worth noting that both laws were signed by his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.) His administration has also sought protections for gays and lesbians in other countries. Though I would be hard-pressed to rattle off an equally long list of accomplishments the president has enacted on behalf of any other minority group, including black Americans, when it comes to the issue of gay marriage, he still faces the kind of criticism from LGBT and liberal leaders that should be reserved for anti-gay activists. (Newsflash: he's not one.)

Shortly after Biden's Meet the Press coming out, Politico and The Huffington Post both posted articles on how Biden's comments only reinforced further disillusionment with the commander-in-chief. The Associated Press ran a similar article days ago. The takeaway? The president is not "evolving" quickly enough for some.

Despite being miles ahead of his predecessors on LGBT rights, from day one his candidacy and administration have faced a questionable level of criticism and hostility from some corners of the LGBT rights movement. For instance, I have yet to get a clear answer as to why polls showed gay and lesbian voters favored Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama during the 2008 primary, particularly when the Clinton administration signed a number of the anti-gay laws that the Obama administration has had to spend its first term undoing.

There are a few theories as to why the president's LGBT critics have been so vocal and impossible to please. The first, of course, is that they simply feel passionately about equality and gay marriage and want to see it become the law of the land as soon as possible because that's the right thing. Of course, if this were actually true, then any LGBT activist worth his or her salt would be patiently trying get the president elected to a second term so that he could work on that issue. Polls show (and the 2004 election proved) that he's unlikely to get a second term if he presses it now. It's a non-starter with religious voters, and turnout among religious voters of color is crucial to any Democratic candidate. (In a previous interview former DNC polling director Cornell Belcher told me that churchgoing black women make or break elections for Democrats. He is now chief pollster for the Obama campaign.)

Now, on a personal level, do I wish that every politician had the courage to speak from his heart? Sure. For instance, President Kennedy notoriously asked his friend Sammy Davis, Jr. not to attend his inauguration with his white wife. Is that personally disappointing to hear? Absolutely, but not nearly as disappointing as my life might be today had Kennedy said, "Screw you, racists. Sammy's my friend, and they are a beautiful couple." I doubt that would have contributed much to his and his successor President Johnson's efforts to help people like me secure our rights, but I'm sure it would have made a few interracial couples feel better sooner. (In a noteworthy parallel, six years after Kennedy's inaugural, which would have been his second term, had he lived, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia (1967), which struck down the Virginia statute against interracial marriage. Take note, marriage equality activists.)

The other possibility as to why the president has faced such excessive criticism is a theory I am not alone in sharing but may be the first to voice publicly. As I have written before, the leadership in the LGBT activism community is not exactly known for its diversity. There has long been tension and resentment between the LGBT community and communities of color. Black voters were unfairly and inaccurately blamed for the Prop 8 debacle and were also strangely blamed by some for the defeat of gay marriage in predominantly white states. (Go figure.) This displacement of blame reeked of racism and was occasionally accompanied by blatantly racist language. (Click here to read my previous coverage of the subject.)

There have also been plenty of vocally anti-gay black activists.

But President Obama is not one of them. Yet it seems that there are members of the gay community who will simply never trust him because he is black and a Christian and therefore must be anti-gay until he does everything they ask, when they ask it, to prove that he is not. This litmus test, which I have seen applied to no other leader, smacks of subtle prejudice, and yet his critics are too busy trying to prove that he is homophobic to see it.

This also dovetails with another unsettling perception that the marriage equality movement is coming dangerously close to permanently perpetuating: entitlement. Unfair or not, the movement is perceived as one driven largely by privileged, wealthy, white males, men who are not used to hearing the word "no," because in the eyes of some, if you're white, male, and wealthy, the world is supposed to be your oyster. While those of us who are racial minorities, ethnic minorities, or women accept that certain opportunities may be harder to come by than others (and may take longer to fight for) because of the package we were born into, there appears to be a level of impatience among those seeking the right to marry (not the right to vote, or pursue an education) that screams, "I'm right on this issue. I voted for you. I even wrote you a check. And I expect this taken care of, like, yesterday."

Making this perception even worse? The fact that it is impossible not to wonder if what really bothers some of these privileged white males (and a few females) is that it is a black man not asking them, "How high?" when they say, "Jump!"

New York Magazine provided the perfect illustration of the tone-deafness and racial insensitivity of the president's critics on LGBT rights. The graphic accompanying a post mocking his "evolution" on gay marriage consisted of the president's photo pasted into an evolutionary sketch. The end result? An image of the President of the United States morphing from an ape.

When I first alerted them on Twitter that this image was offensive, they appeared baffled. (If you were to look up "tone-deaf" in the dictionary, there may be a screenshot of that Twitter exchange.) To their credit they subsequently removed the offending image. As I explained on Twitter, that kind of heavy-handed approach is unlikely to win new supporters for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, particularly among black Americans. (Interestingly, this racially charged misstep received little media coverage or critique the same week criticism by LGBT activists of Roland Martin for ill-advised tweets dominated headlines.)

While I am prepping to head to my second same-sex wedding in a few short weeks, there are still black Americans who remain skeptical on the issue, and they are not alone. Nearly half the American population does not support gay marriage (53 percent do), but all polling trends over the last decade show that many are getting there.

The president appears to be one of them, but he won't get there through political bullying. And he is unlikely to get there publicly before the next presidential election. But since he is a well-known believer in Dr. King's dream, I am pretty sure his evolution will continue.

As Coretta Scott King once proclaimed:

My husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny ... an inescapable network of mutuality ... I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be." Therefore, I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.

Keli Goff is the author of The GQ Candidate and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com, where this post originally appeared.

 
 
 

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