If I were advising President Barack Obama, I would tell him to pay as much attention to the ornery jeers from protesters outside the Human Rights Campaign's October 10th Washington dinner as the cheers coming from inside the ornate ballroom.
"The last thing we need is more flowery rhetoric in front of rich, self-effacing gays and lesbians dressed up like penguins," said Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network, who plans to picket the event.
The cross mood expressed by Thayer is indicative of the restlessness felt by the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender grass roots in the early stages of Obama's presidency.
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) deserves a heaping helping of praise for furnishing a primetime platform for Obama to impart his message. But, the President and HRC must realize that the stakes are even higher than the price of the steaks served in the ballroom of the black-tie affair. While no one will likely yell, "you lie" in the middle of his remarks, there will be a collective sigh if all we get is a pretty speech.
Let it be known that the GLBT community is no longer interested in being pals with the powerful or having the famous tell us we are fabulous - unless it leads to action. If the goal of this evening were simply to provide an interesting dinner guest, Meryl Streep or Michael Moore would have sufficed. What we want from Obama, however, is a fighter working to set us free. We need signed paper in the form of laws, not paper-thin promises and illusive signs of hope. Unless a concrete vision is offered at this event, Obama's speech will sink like concrete in the Potomac River.
I would also advise Obama that it will be considered a letdown if the centerpiece of his talk is to offer a push for hate crime legislation. Americans of all political stripes are generally in agreement that it is wrong to beat or kill gay people, so this is legislation that requires a bare minimum of political capital. There are presently laws on the books that punish perpetrators of such crimes, so some form of redress already exists. (Although, hate crime laws are still important to ensure justice is consistently served)
At a bare minimum, the president should vow to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) by the end of the year, which would prohibit hiring and firing on the basis of sexual orientation. Currently, it is legal to fire a person if he or she is gay in the majority of states.
The President should forcefully condemn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits married gay couples from receiving federal benefits. It would be wise, as well, for Obama to use this opportunity to make a compelling case, as only he can, for scrapping the disastrous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which humiliates gay service members and harms military readiness.
Gay activist David Mixner raises a good point when he says that Obama should oppose a ballot measure to overturn the freedom to marry in Maine.
"It is inconceivable to me that the hosts would allow him to attend the dinner without a solid commitment that he will oppose the hate filled initiative in Maine. That would be unacceptable," wrote Mixner on his website. "How exciting would it be at the HRC National Dinner to have the president in a timely and unequivocal way put the power of the Presidency behind our historic and epic struggle in Maine?"
The day following the HRC event, thousands of GLBT people will stream into Washington for the National Equality March. Obama will be greeted like a conquering hero or a sweet talking zero depending on what he says the night before at the podium. I just hope his handlers are keenly aware that the crowds that mass are expecting some bills to pass.
The administration should be concerned about the growing perception that the president is all talk and no action. During the primaries, Hillary Clinton portrayed him as a slick salesman who could not follow through on his grandiose promises. In the general election, John McCain said Obama was an empty "celebrity" who would not deliver.
Standing on principle for GLBT equality would go a long way in diffusing and dispelling this still potent line of criticism. It is important to act now, considering Saturday Night Live aired a skit last weekend outlining Obama's unfulfilled promises, including "Don't Ask Don't Tell."
Let's hope that Obama does not mirror the usual banquet food at such events, looking great on the menu, while turning out to be a rubber chicken. A milquetoast presidency will likely mean he's toast when he runs for reelection. He can either be history by appeasing a far right that will never support him, or do what is morally right and make history with an unforgettable speech at the HRC dinner.