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Michael Rowe Headshot

Why It's Time for LGBT Democrats to Get Over Their Battered Wife Syndrome

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The news that 10th annual LGBT Leadership Council fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington on June 25th raised a million dollars for the DNC must have been greeted with a sigh of relief from the Obama administration. The success of the event, which reportedly carried a price tag of between $1000 and $34,000 a plate, was proof that LGBT Democrats remain a loyal and dependable cash cow for the party.

Furthermore, it suggested that they were a cash cow that could be successfully milked whenever necessary, no matter what banal indifference or cruel indignity was heaped upon them by an administration that promised them "a friend in the White House" even as the body count from Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges reached 265 people since the inauguration on January 20th 2009.

LGBT Americans mobilized millions in 2008 to elect Barack Obama to the presidency, working tirelessly to ensure his success--and not only because they felt he would be a president who could potentially right some of the social wrongs that have guaranteed, and maintained, their second-class citizen status 40 years after the Stonewall riots that jump-started what later came to be known as the gay rights movement in the United States.

They also voted for Obama because they believed that he would be a president for millennial America, one who would restore the country's luster abroad and unite it at home, in no small part by delivering a deathblow to the barrier of historical racism that has kept the country socially and politically stratified by color.

While the GOP appears to have abandoned its own historical roots, settling into a comfortable marriage with religious fundamentalism, militarism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and the lowest levels of bigotry, the Democratic Party under Obama cast itself as the New Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill where the full spectrum of American society--including gays, lesbians, and transgender Americans--would be represented and respected.

To many LGBT Americans, it was logical to expect that the tangible effect of prejudice--be it sexism, racism, or homophobia--would be an immediate casualty of the Obama presidency. All of this seemed worth spending their time, money, and hopes for a better America, to support.

The first blow came out of nowhere.

After months of speculation about which of the many inclusive, enlightened religious leaders would be chosen to bless the Inauguration, the Obama team announced that Rick Warren--a homophobic evangelical megachurch pastor who specifically spoke out against gay marriage during the Proposition 8 campaign-- would deliver the inaugural prayer.

LGBT Americans were stunned. Most were outraged, but felt compelled, nonetheless, to make uneasy excuses for the president-elect, to wit that he might be "reaching out" to "unite" or "heal" the Republican evangelical base who might be feeling "left out" on Inauguration Day. And no, he was certainly not throwing his LGBT constituency under the wheels of the bus in order to make nice with Republican evangelicals who hated him. Right? Right?

Being idealists as well as Obama loyalists, they walked off the pain ("It's just a little discomfort, really, nothing at all!") and looked to the future, telling themselves it was only a bump and a little ice would bring the swelling down. No problem, the party loved them. It was just a little argument, a rocky start they would soon smooth out, and over.

In a dizzyingly short span of months, Defense Secretary Robert Gates would tell war colleges he didn't have a position on LGBT troops revealing their sexual orientation; America would meet Dan Choi and Lt. Col. Victor J. Fehrenbach, one a brilliant West Point graduate and Arab-language expert, the other a superstar fighter pilot in whom the Air Force had invested $25 million in training, both being expelled from the services under Don't Ask, Don't Tell; Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell would admit that there were no plans in the works to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, nor had there been any serious discussions between the White House and the military about repealing it; the Justice Department would file a spectacularly ugly brief on behalf of the Obama administration in support of the Defense of Marriage Act (a rancid cigar from another Democratic president, Bill Clinton) comparing gay marriages to incestuous unions; and Obama would sign an order granting a minuscule number of benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, which somehow only served to illustrate how many benefits they still didn't have, compared to their heterosexual counterparts--notably health or retirement benefits--highlighting the inequality with bolder strokes than usual.

Many LGBT Democrats who chivalrously and loyally insist that any aggressive advance of their own equality might jeopardize their president's larger agenda have excused all of the above. They've told themselves, and each other, that their rights can wait because, after all, there's a war on, and the economy is in the toilet, and the president has "a lot on his plate."

Oh, and besides? He's throwing a party at the White House on Monday to commemorate the Stonewall riots. See? He loves us. We told you he loves us. He's throwing us a Pride party! Woot! Go Barry! Go Barry!

While it is indeed profoundly moving that the gay president of GLAAD will be able to bring his 17 year old son to the White House to meet the president of the United States at a reception to honor the memory of Stonewall, how much more moving would it have been for him to meet the president who had suspended Don't Ask, Don't Tell with a phone call to the Pentagon ordering them to immediately halt the implementation of the policy, pursuant to aggressive consultation with Congress about repealing it? Even more, a president who had not invited a divisive homophobe to bless his Inauguration in the first place, or who had publicly disavowed statements or briefs from his Pentagon and Justice Department that contradicted his stated positions on gay rights?

All of which makes the appeal, and success, of the $1 million fundraiser a bit of a mystery.

What if, instead of parroting a variation on the same line they're being fed by the Obama administration and those non-gay Democrats to whom LGBT rights are a very low priority, the fundraiser attendees had said, simply, "Nope. Not this time. Make that call about DADT, and then we can talk." What if the Gay ATM had simply been out of order for once?

What if, instead of lining up to hear Joe Biden tell them that the administration would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or Don't Ask, Don't Tell, "with your help!" in spite of every indication to the contrary, the attendees had stayed home with their checkbooks until there was some real action from the White House either policy? Yes, it's a sad reality that politics turns on such a blatant financial axis, but it's useful to acknowledge it instead of the endless wait to be acknowledged as having civic, military, and moral value.

What if, instead of getting a million dollar booty-call from the one group that always puts out, no matter what, the LGBT donors had suddenly crossed their collective political and economic legs, and told the DNC "No more freebies. Not without that ring."

The phrase, "Give the president a break, he's only____months into the presidency!" has become something of a cliché, and a shopworn cliché at that. It's been used by LGBT Democrats with increasing desperation as an excuse, to themselves as much as to others--a flesh-toned cover-up for bruising announcements from the general vicinity of the White House about LGBT-related policy regarding the Defense of Marriage Act; a towel-wrapped ice-pack pressed against the swelling numbers of LGBT servicemen and women being expelled from the military under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

One would be hard pressed to imagine any other group with substantial economic clout being told to sit tight and wait their turn by the administration of a president they helped to elect---not women, not Jews, not African Americans. No other group would tolerate it.

There is a great deal that can be done now, and if there is to be a culture war, it's an inevitable one. The quest for "bipartisanship" should not be an excuse for sacrificing political integrity, or honoring a long-overdue commitment to a long-loyal and significant voting bloc. Ignoring the problem isn't going to make it go away, nor is pointing out the obvious fact that the Republicans are no friend of the LGBT community, or that a McCain-Palin administration would have been an express train to oblivion for gay rights. LGBT Americans voted for Obama to be their president too, not just the lesser of two evils.

It might simply be time to admit that there is abuse in the relationship, get help, become empowered, and stop telling themselves and others that everything is fine, that they just walked into a DOMA.