RDPulpit: Is Barack Obama a “Fierce Advocate” For Gays or Just Pragmatist-in-Chief?

The patience of the LGBT community with the Obama administration ended when his Department of Justice released a brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) comparing homosexuality to incest and pedophilia:

The brief insists it is reasonable for states to favor heterosexual marriages because they are the “traditional and universally recognized form of marriage.” In arguing that other states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages under the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, the Justice Department cites decades-old cases ruling that states do not have to recognize marriages between cousins or an uncle and a niece.

While there had been concerns about some of Obama’s non-policy decisions and fear that he was unwilling to act on policies that favor gay rights, the brief displayed a crass willingness to use Bush-era language in support of a Clinton-era law that prohibits the extension of marriage rights to state-recognized same-sex relationships. It was only when several prominent gay donors pulled out of a Democratic National Committee fundraiser that the administration realized the potential impact of their tense relationship with the LGBT community.

Let the damage control begin.

When many in the gay community expressed shock at Barack Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to lead the invocation at his inauguration, Obama seemed surprised at the outrage, declaring that he is a “fierce advocate for gay and lesbian Americans.”

Throughout his campaign and up to his inauguration, we were asked to believe that Obama would be a champion for causes that were important to LGBT Americans. Almost six months since the Rick Warren incident, gay Americans have either heard silence on the important issues or communication that makes the administration seem utterly tone-deaf to our struggles. The insulting tenor of the recent DOJ brief has brought the issue to an entirely new level. Learning from Bill Clinton, our current pragmatist-in-chief appears to have decided that supporting the gay community will not help his presidency.

President Obama’s posturing on gay rights is instructive. For one thing, we should ask, what makes somebody a fierce advocate? We are reminded of Hillary Clinton’s response to Obama’s moving speeches during the campaign, that they were “mere words.” While Americans were becoming more and more mesmerized by the power of his prose, she sought to break the spell by suggesting that despite the flowery words, he would not be able to get things done in the White House.

Last week, faced with the mounting anger of the LGBT community, Obama once again resorted to words before a crowd of 200 or so at an LGBT Pride ceremony. But, we must wonder if these too are mere words. I mean, shouldn’t we be skeptical of anyone who claims to be a fierce advocate for a cause simply because has staked out a few campaign positions relating to it? Shouldn’t we ask what laws he has passed, what commissions he has joined or what alliances he has built? Words alone do not a fierce advocate make.

For starters, Obama’s words on the same-sex marriage issue sound more like the words of a fierce advocate against gay rights, providing cover to gay marriage opponents from the right wing. When a beauty pageant contestant, talk radio host, or politician voting on key marriage measures justify their stance on marriage, they continually remind us that their position is the same as Barack Obama’s. They stand shoulder to shoulder with him against defining LGBT relationships with dignity. Even worse, Obama has been unable to provide any sound reason for being against same-sex marriage except the vague notion that his Christian religion brings him to this conclusion.

Yet even in this regard, he is fundamentally out of step with the teachings of the only church of which he has ever been a member. The United Church of Christ actually supports same-sex marriage! Thus it seems like a convenient pragmatism rather than his Christian beliefs leads him to be against same-sex marriage. Being opposed to same-sex marriage allows Obama to “reach across the aisle” to conservative Christians (one of the clearly stated goals of his campaign and presidency), while also substantiating his avowed Christian faith and quelling unfounded rumors of a Muslim faith.

Same-sex marriage is the only issue where Obama reverts to religion alone to find his answers, and allows religion alone to generate the exact legislation he would support. And he does this with no real explanation about how Christian teaching leads him to these conclusions. Perhaps this is because Christian teaching on marriage has been evolving over the course of its history and provides no coherent guidelines regarding same-sex marriage. Marriage has not always been the same for all time as conservatives argue. One of the most effective ways to shut down spirited and intellectual debate is to simply state that one’s religion has led to some specific conclusion. It’s a convenient way to avoid controversy and confrontation.

As LGBT folks struggle to obtain marriage rights in what is taking shape as the greatest civil rights battle of his presidency, Obama remains silent [read essays for and against comparisons between the LGBT struggle for civil rights and the African American Civil Rights Movement]. Barack Obama has said nothing about the fact that Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut allow gay marriage. We have the first African-American president ignoring the fight for equal rights of another minority group. His stated opposition is in complete disagreement with the majority view of voters below the age of 30, placing him on the wrong side of history. Even Dick Cheney indicates support for same-sex marriage. When Obama hasn’t been mute, he has made jokes at public events that come across as tone-deaf. These jokes about Iowa or California protesters at fundraisers or press dinners contradict one of his core values as a person, showing a real lack of empathy.

Yes, empathy—the very quality he has demanded from a Supreme Court justice. While Obama communicates that he values empathy, he doesn’t always manage to demonstrate it. Remember his “you’re nice enough Hillary” in New Hampshire? Obama’s coolness and cerebral persona provide many benefits during a time of incredible complexity and upheaval in our world. But sometimes a person’s strengths can also be his or her downfall. In attempting to remain distant from LGBT issues because they may not fit his pragmatic approach toward a successful presidency, he has become aloof to the LGBT community itself. Empathy toward LGBT folks is simply inconvenient for him right now.

Mere words of support and a lack of inconvenient empathy provide the backdrop to this series of disturbing decisions that challenge many LGBT individuals to the core. As far as LGBT citizens are concerned, Obama might as well be George W. Bush. Obama’s administration has fired service members in the military, despite saying in the past that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) is wrong. Even John McCain said he would create a commission on DADT to determine whether it remains appropriate. Doing nothing on the legislative front, the administration’s removal of uniquely talented military personnel indicates that they have no real commitment to justice. And, there is definitely no “urgency of now” with this issue.

Even more shocking, the brief by the Department of Justice to defend the DOMA in California sounds like it could have been written by the Family Research Council, including slippery slope arguments that same-sex marriage will eventually lead to legalized incest. It also claims that marriage is a right already afforded to gay people because they could always choose to marry someone of the opposite sex. With this action, the administration allowed a devout Mormon and Bush appointee in the Department of Justice to represent the position of Obama and his administration. They may be mere words, but they are highly offensive and have a “knife in the back” feel to them. Obama’s recent speech before gay activists seems to refer to the brief when he mentions the problem of old divisive arguments that should not be used. Yet he failed to apologize for the intolerant actions of his administration. Where is the change that we can believe in?

The gay community has been a huge source of cash for the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the party has not delivered on any major gay rights legislation. Could it be that LGBT Democrats might finally stop giving money when their demands and concerns are not being addressed? We have learned that protesting with our pocketbooks is the only thing that gets the administration to act on our behalf. The memo signed by the president this past week extending some minimal benefits to LGBT federal employees was an attempt to quell the furor. Instead, it shows us that the president will only take on our causes if he is pushed very hard. And, we note that his reaction underscores his lack of credibility on our issues—he could have signed this memo early in his presidency since it has little effect, promotes benefits that were often already provided, and goes out of practice the minute he leaves the White House.

These incidents are instructive for the LGBT community and show us a path for getting action from this president. First, we need to withhold our money from the DNC and communicate why we are doing it. The pink dollar comes with a price from now on. Second, we need to plan acts of civil disobedience that garner attention and keep the story front and center. Pressure needs to be applied and felt. Third, the march on Washington planned for October needs to be very unlike the last one, which had no bite to it. The October march needs to include a good dose of rage that does not celebrate how far we have come but demands that we go much further. Last, if the Barack Obama presidency remains unchanged in years two and three of his first term, we need to join other progressives and search for a Democrat to run against him in the primary. This is what his political team fears the most and we should be willing to go for it. Presidents who face a primary opponent show vulnerability and often lose the general election. Think of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. We need to say, “Do right by us or we will find someone else who will.”

Obama needs to act. Occasionally peppering speeches with platitudes about tolerance toward gay people will do little to bring real change in the ways LGBT people experience discrimination. The proclamation from the president celebrating gay pride month rings hollow and feels meaningless. The benefits extension was weak and should not receive the applause of supposed LGBT leaders. These things are too little, too late. From this president, LGBT people receive very little empathy because it’s not convenient. His words on gay issues offer support on the one hand, and some unpleasantly familiar disdain for LGBT equality on the other. When it comes to action, this administration has gone from indifference to the active promotion of religious opposition to the rights of gay Americans, followed by weak attempts to appease us when we protested with our pocketbooks.

At this point, we cannot honestly call this president a fierce advocate of gay rights. I’m afraid that we cannot even call him much of an ally.

xyz@xyz.com'

Paul Gorrell earned his doctorate in Christian Social Ethics at Drew University in 2004 and co-chairs the Gay Men?s Issues in Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion. His essays have been published in Theology and Sexuality and Gay Religion. A former Catholic priest, he provides leadership development coaching and programs to companies of all sizes.