The Human Rights Campaign recently announced that President Barack Obama will once again keynote their annual dinner in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 1, 2011. This is the HRC's largest annual fundraiser, raising big bucks and drawing thousands of participants.
"We are honored to share this night with President Obama, who has a tremendous record of accomplishment for LGBT people," said HRC President Joe Solmonese.
I am not sure what I expected from the nation's largest LGBT rights organization (as entrenched as they are in establishment politics -- or, one could justly say, politics-as-usual). They were quick to endorse a second term for this president, touting the "profound change" delivered by the current administration. The HRC praised the government's repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and its refusal to defend portions of the Defense of Marriage Act as proof of our president's -- pardon me, our "fierce advocate's" -- commitment to the United States' LGBT citizens. They have even gone so far as to pronounce the reelection of Barack Obama as a "top priority" for their organization.
I am one of the many who has paid very close attention to the Obama presidency since his astounding election. I eagerly absorbed every promise, every speech and every action. Three years in, however, I have started to wonder if Obama and HRC can legitimately say they really paid attention to the voice of our community; certainly, they can be seen to heed only the voices fortunate enough to attend fancy dinners and receptions. That much is obvious. Certainly, they can listen to those LGBT citizens with enough disposable income to donate thousands of dollars to electoral politics. My question is whether they can hear the voices of homeless queer youth, our jobless or even our children? (There are 17,000 children being raised by same-gender couples in Texas alone.) What will the president really have to say to the rest of us?
It's likely that we will hear a lot of congratulatory self-admiration over the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the same repeal that, while a victory, contains many compromises that water down its effectiveness and destroy its true intent. According to the language of the repeal, this discriminatory policy may be reinstated at any moment by Congress, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or any sitting U.S. president. The statutory repeal does not include a nondiscrimination policy for LGBT service members (ensuring fair treatment while enlisted), and members of the trans community are still forced to serve a "grateful" nation in silence -- when they are allowed to serve at all. Furthermore, two days after the repeal became official, the Obama administration's Justice Department was in court voicing opposition to full severance pay for 142 service members who were discharged under the policy. May we expect these issues to be addressed in the president's HRC speech?
Our Commander in Chief doesn't fare much better with respect to the Defense of Marriage Act. True, his administration has stopped defending Section 3 of DOMA, and this is a step in the right direction. But he has yet to come out in support of marriage equality -- something even Dick Cheney supports -- and still maintains that states should be allowed to decide marriage for themselves. Presumably, this hands-off approach includes states like my own, which decide against marriage equality.
It was at another gala dinner in New York just a few months ago that Obama famously omitted support for a marriage equality bill the night before the New York State Senate cast its historic vote. More recently, our "fierce advocate" managed to breeze through North Carolina without a single mention of marriage equality, this in a state preparing to vote on discriminatory anti-marriage legislation. Should we expect the president to announce that he has finished his "evolution" on relationship recognition over cocktails on Oct. 1?
How about the Employment Non-discrimination Act, Mr. President? Can we expect an announcement that you will be issuing an Executive Order requiring government contractors to hire without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity?
Despite the thousands of important LGBT issues in need of redress, my gut reaction is that we can expect business as usual from our president at the annual HRC dinner on Oct. 1. We can expect a showcase of the usual things he thinks should win our votes and our money. We can expect some well-chosen words about "forging ahead," all while glossing over or ignoring the real issues that impact the lives of everyday people in our community, who cannot afford to blow $200 on a single meal with the president. Sadly, we can also, with the certainty of sunrise, expect the HRC to eat out of the palm of his hand.
As I reflect on what the current administration has or has not done for its queer populace, I am reminded of what real leadership on civil rights looks like. In June 1963, President Kennedy addressed civil rights -- not by speaking at a lavish dinner, but by addressing the entire nation:
"This nation, for all its hopes," he affirmed, "cannot be free until all of its citizens are free."
It is time for leadership once again. We are waiting.