For Gay Leaders, Obama’s Silence on Prop. 8 Speaks Volumes

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday May 28, 2009

GLBT families, people of faith who support their cause, and even Republican leaders of a traditional conservative stripe that values individual freedoms and responsibilities unhindered by government interference have stepped forward to protest and take action following the California Supreme Court's finding that upholds Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that put the marriage rights of gay and lesbian families up to a popular vote, and saw those rights eradicated.

But one major source of leadership has been silent on the issue: President Barack Obama, who pledged while on the campaign trail last year to advocate for the civil rights of gay and lesbian Americans.

GLBT leaders have been growing impatient with Obama's seeming lack of interest in GLBT issues since he won the White House and, with it, a number of urgent crises left behind by the Bush administration.

But the upholding of Proposition 8, which sets a legal precedent in which the rights of minorities can be stripped through a majority vote on a ballot initiative, is a matter of tremendous concern for gay and lesbian Americans as well as straight citizens worried that Proposition 8 might be only the tip of a coming iceberg.

Even so, the momentous decision by California's top court failed to elicit a response from the Oval Office, leaving GLBT leaders angrier than ever.

An open letter to the president by Lorri L. Jean was posted at Gay Blog Spots on May 27. The letter expressed the concerns of many in the GLBT community.

Wrote Jean, "Welcome to California, Mr. President.

"I welcome you with a heavy heart because of the California Supreme Court's decision to uphold Prop. 8, relegating same-sex couples to second-class status and denying us that most noble promise of America, 'liberty and justice for all.'"

Continued Jean, "You are arriving in Los Angeles on the heels of emotional demonstrations throughout California and our nation and your silence at such a time speaks volumes."

Jean pointedly echoed the president's own message of optimism, writing, "LGBT people and our allies have the 'audacity to hope' for a country that treats us fairly and equally and for a President with the will to stand up for those ideals. From you we expect nothing less."

Jean acknowledged that many challenges faced by the new administration, but made the concerns of GLBT Americans known. "We know the country faces many serious challenges and we have strived to be patient.

"We've waited for the slightest sign you would live up to your promise to be a 'fierce advocate' for our equal rights while watching gay and lesbian members of the armed forces, who have never been more needed, get discharged from the military.

"And so far you have done nothing. No stop loss order. No call to cease such foolish and discriminatory actions that make our nation less safe."

Jean reminded the president of his campaign promises to gay and lesbian Americans. "You pledged to repeal the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, Mr. President.

"You promised to support a 'complete repeal' of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and pledged to advocate for legislation that would give same-sex couples the 1,100+ federal rights and benefits we are denied, including the same rights to social security benefits.

"You said, 'Federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples.'

"What of those promises, Mr. President?"

Jean went on to cite the quick dismissal of the press by the White House.

Asked whether Obama had any reaction to the ruling from the California Supreme Court, the press officer said, "I have not talked to the President about it."

The press officer hurried on, saying, "I think the issues involved are ones that you know where the President stands."

Then, before further questions could be raised, the press officer cut off the session with a cursory, "Thanks, guys," before striding away from the podium.

That cursory dismissal did not sit well. Wrote Jean, "We not only need to hear from our President, we need his action. And we need it now."

Jean equated Proposition 8 to the great civil rights battles of the past, and the leadership that matched the needs of the moment.

"We need your words, Mr. President," Jean wrote.

"But we also need your deeds. We expect you to fulfill the promises you made to us.

"As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, 'Justice too long delayed is justice denied.'

"Do not delay, Mr. President. The time for action is now."

Jean's reference to the struggle for equality for African Americans was not the only such comparison. As noted by conservative Web site News Busters in a May 27 article, MSNBC news host Carlos Watson and Roy Seacoff, the founding editor of The Huffington Post conversed about Obama's silence and Prop. 8 in terms of the court case, Plessy v. Ferguseon, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld "separate but equal" laws and policies meant to segregate Blacks and Whites.

Asked Watson, "Roy, so how significant a political issue will this be, particularly for Democrats, like President Obama, who right now have taken a stand that says 'I'm in favor of civil unions but no to same-sex marriage?"

Replied Seacoff, "Now Carlos, I know--because I read it on the Huffington Post, and the Stimulist-- ...that you think that this is the moral equivalent of Plessy vs. Ferguson and... and I tend to agree with you, which makes me sad that Obama is behind the curve on this issue.

"I mean, he is not upholding his promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, he's not upholding his promise on Don't Ask Don't Tell," continued Seacoff.

"He allowed Lieutenant Choi (a military officer who came out publicly) to be fired. So... it feels like he's really behind the curve on this issue and I think that's sad because I think he needs to be out front, leading the issue," Seacoff continued.

"Because I think you're right, it is the moral equivalent of Plessy vs. Ferguson, where we had separate but equal, now what do we have? There--it's together but unequal?

"Some people who were married get to stay married but the people--the new people can't get married," continued Seacoff, referring to the Court's decision that while future marriages would be barred, the 18,000 same-sex couples who had married prior to Proposition 8's voter approval would be allowed to remain married.

Noted Seacoff, "It seems like they're tying themselves up in knot on this issue."

The two referenced similar controversies faced by the Clinton administration, which led to the creation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as a compromise measure, and which cost Clinton a good deal of political clout early on in his first term.

Asked Watson, "Given all that Obama has on his plate, is it realistic to expect that he could tackle this... even if his heart is in one place, can his political judgment be in another?"

Replied Seacoff, "I think on a moral question like this it has to be."

Seacoff went on, "I get the history of Clinton, but as you say, things have changed a lot since '93 when Clinton tried to make 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and kind of got stuck up in a 6 months of studies and gave them time to come against it.

"So I actually think that [Obama] needs to lead on this."

Seacoff speculated that Obama would show leadership in GLBT issues late, and look foolish for it.

"You know, the problem is that at the end of the day he's going to go that way and it's going to look like he's hopping on the bandwagon, like everybody's who's suddenly in favor of Orlando taking the NBA title," Seacoff said.

"Little late in the game for that."

Watson recollected how Lyndon B. Johnson brought his leadership to the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, and Seacoff noted, "Johnson only did that after Bloody Sunday, after King, you know, mobilized the forces and we saw what happened when the soul of the nation was captured by those images of people beaten on that bridge. That's what made Johnson turn around."

Thus far, however, the political battering America's gay families have taken has not brought Obama to action on their behalf.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.