The "Summer of Obummer"

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Friday June 26, 2009

Five months in and the LGBT community's swooning over President Barack Obama is officially over. Instead, bashing the White House for its lack of movement on LGBT rights is in full bloom from coast to coast.

Some are calling it the "Summer of Obummer."

Steven Goldstein, the chair of New Jersey's statewide LGBT organization, Garden State Equality, went so far as to describe the president's record on LGBT rights, thus far, as "a tyranny of timidity" in a release last week.

The president came into office pledging to be a "fierce advocate" for the LGBT community. But the courtship between the Obama White House and LGBT activists has proven to be rocky, with the administration having to do damage control even before Obama took the oath of office in January. The outrage back then was the selection of anti-gay California pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the president's inauguration.

Following that kerfuffle the gay community's heartstrings were plucked by hints of Obama appointing the first-ever openly gay cabinet member. Instead, gay men and lesbians were given lower posts, with the highest administration appointee that of John Berry as director of the Office of Personnel Management.

More sour notes were hit when the administration said it wanted to take a full year to develop a National AIDS Strategy and budgeted less money than AIDS advocates had expected to domestically fight the epidemic. The dumbing down of the president's LGBT agenda on the White House Web site also raised red flags for LGBT activists.

The strain only deepened by the White House's and Pentagon's fumbling over just what it intended to do about lifting the military's anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy restricting LGBT people from serving openly. Obama promised on the campaign trail to lift the ban but, so far, has punted doing so until later in his administration, if ever.

In court papers the Obama administration has defended the policy, and it has also refused to issue an executive order ending discharges of LGBT service members as it determines what course of action to take.

"I wonder what his record would be like so far if he weren't such a 'fierce advocate' for gay rights?" mused out lesbian MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow on her June 8 show.

The final straw for many LGBT people came three days later when Obama's Justice Department filed a derogatory and offensive brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act - the law that prohibits same-sex marriage and equal federal benefits for same-sex couples - that Obama has pledged to repeal. In response, six national LGBT organizations issued a stinging rebuke of the administration's legal stance.

The DOMA brief flare-up has led numerous LGBT leaders to pull out from today's (Thursday, June 25) fundraiser in Washington. D.C. hosted by the Democratic National Committee's LGBT Leadership Council featuring Vice President Joe Biden. It is just another sign of the exasperation many LGBT people are feeling toward the president.

"I am very upset with him. He is good on some things but dragging his feet on others, like our issues. What is he afraid of?" asked Maggi Rubenstein, a longtime local bisexual activist. "He should take a big risk. Give it all you got now and screw what will happen in four years."

"Okay, your 100 days are up. Let's get busy," added San Francisco resident Catherine Archbold, who married her partner of 28 years, Lin Murphy, last August, about Obama, whom the couple supported throughout his presidential campaign.

The only LGBT rights the president has delivered on came last week, when he signed a memorandum instructing federal agencies to bestow some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal LGBT employees and asked census officials to find a way to count same-sex married couples.

The latter move was a reversal from the administration's earlier stance that it would not recognize LGBT married couples, and the former stopped well short of granting health and retirement benefits, though the administration said it was hamstrung from doing so due to DOMA.

At his June 17 White House signing ceremony Obama admitted that his actions amounted to very little in terms of protections for LGBT Americans.

"It's a day that marks a historic step toward the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step. Among the steps we have not yet taken is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. I believe it's discriminatory, I think it interferes with states' rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it," said Obama. "We've got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally; to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms; and to bring about that more perfect union. I'm committed to these efforts, and I pledge to work tirelessly on behalf of these issues in the months and years to come."

Yet his comments did little to ease the pressure LGBT groups and their allies are putting on the president to turn his pledges into action. The day after Obama held the White House ceremony, the governing body of the San Francisco Democratic Party passed a resolution calling on him to work with the Congress in repealing DOMA and DADT, as well as enacting an inclusive Employee Non-Discrimination Act this year.

Gino VanGundy, a gay man running for an East Bay congressional seat, issued a statement slamming Obama for "throwing crumbs" at the LGBT community in order to "to remove the pressure from the LGBTQI community on his lack of action and failure to follow through on his campaign promises."

DADT repeal was noticeably absent from the president's comments last week, but advocates for lifting the ban remain optimistic of seeing Obama end the anti-gay policy.

"Mr. President, please keep your promise. In doing so you would be helping the military and helping people who eagerly want to serve their country," said Anthony Woods, who did two tours in Iraq before being honorably discharged under DADT last year and is also running for the East Bay congressional seat expected to be vacated this summer by Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek). "I think he will keep his promise. I still have hope."

LGBT leaders give Obama a failing grade

In interviews with the Bay Area Reporter last week, LGBT leaders said Obama has so far earned failing grades when it comes to LGBT issues.

"I am not sure what the grade is for missing in action, but I would give him a D at best," said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, the statewide LGBT advocacy group. "In the last week he has done some small token gestures - both on federal employees and starting to realize the census not only discriminates against same-sex couples but would be inaccurate. It is not a total failure, but pretty close."

Openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) sounded a similar stance, noting that during the campaign Obama was "unequivocal" in calling for repeal of both DOMA and DADT.

"The angry response from the community does not surprise me. What is surprising to me is the lack of leadership seen to date from this administration," said Leno. "I think we are all politically sophisticated enough to understand the politics but there can be no compromise on civil rights. Quite honestly, some of the statements made, both regarding DADT and DOMA, have been insulting."

"We need clear leadership from the top. Short of that, our civil rights will continue to be a political weapon as it has been for the past eight years," added Leno.

Eric Bauman, an openly gay man who is vice chair of the Democratic Party in California, said he has been puzzled by the lack of movement on some of the issues of most concern to LGBT people. But he also said he has not given up, just yet, on seeing the president enact the LGBT agenda he has pledged to achieve while in office.

"I had hoped to have seen a lot more action by now on the part of the president. That said, I have certainly not lost hope. I believe that the Obama administration intends to take and make major steps," said Bauman. "As disappointing as yesterday's presidential memorandum was, the fact he reiterated repeal of DOMA and passage of a federal domestic partnership bill, those are big steps, and if they happen, will advance our cause significantly."

"For those in the LGBT community who have invested a great deal financially and emotionally in this president, I think there are a lot of people who believe that this is the guy who can do it and are certainly hopeful that he does it," added Bauman.

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, who took the president to task over the DOMA brief in a scathing letter this month, said, "At this point, I would give him an incomplete grade on LGBT issues."

[As he is a federal registered lobbyist, Solmonese is barred from attending tonight's DNC fundraiser due to rules Obama implemented once he came into office. He has spoken to the president three times since his inauguration, all during meetings or events at the White House.]

Behind the scenes Solmonese said the White House has been engaged in the efforts to move LGBT legislation through the Congress such as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would allow federal authorities to investigate crimes perpetrated against a victim due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill easily passed out of the House of Representatives in April, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill this morning with Attorney General Eric Holder as one of the witnesses.

"On hate crimes they have been right there at our side pushing and finding creative ways to get this legislation moving," said Solmonese. "I am a first-hand witness to the work the administration has done to move the bill through the Senate. The Senate is a tricky place because any one senator can completely derail something with a hold or amendments."

Should the president sign into law a hate crimes bill by the end of July then Solmonese said, "I will give him an A."

Passage of a hate crimes bill, or a fully inclusive ENDA that covers gender identity, will still be too little coming from this president for many LGBT activists. Not only do they argue both pieces of legislation should have been passed years ago, but with the advances in recent months toward marriage equality for same-sex couples, they are looking to Obama to end all federal discrimination against LGBT people.

They expect no less and are tired of waiting.

"I think we need to push now and we need to push hard. I see a historic window of opportunity," said Cleve Jones, a longtime LGBT activist who is organizing a march on Washington this October 11 to press Obama to act. "Many people have suggested we should not expect significant action from the new administration until maybe the third year of Obama's first term. In my opinion a year from now he will be in full re-election mode. It is far better to take these potentially controversial steps early in his administration so voters have the time to process those actions and see that the country will not fall apart."

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