Obama’s Speech a Right Hook to the Right

I had a hard time hearing President Obama’s speech to the audience Human Rights Campaign dinner in Washington, DC this past weekend, because of the noise of so many right wing religious heads popping every time he said the word “gay” or “lesbian” and followed with words of praise and promise instead of curses and condemnation. The religious right has been busy condemning Obama for his words. Catholic Online bemoaned that Obama has made it clear that he “will not defend marriage” and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council , in that same article, warned his constituents that Obama’s message was clear that “if you hold to traditional values, the ultimate goal is simple — to silence you.” The Baptist Press quotes Bob Stith, the Southern Baptist national strategist for gender issues, who complains that Obama dissed Christian conservatives:

“President Obama continues to portray all who disagree with him as those who ‘hold fast to outworn arguments and old attitudes,'” Stith told Baptist Press. “The inference is that if an attitude is old it must be wrong. The constitution is an old document. The Bible is older still.”

And, lest we forget, the Bible was used as the authority to do many things we now reject and legislate against like owning slaves and women and advocating for a separation of the races. I’m certain even Stith would not use the Bible to justify the practice of slavery as many of his Southern Baptist forebears so staunchly did, but this “older still” document has been usurped by the Constitution in this ancient matter. In short, the Bible was wrong on slavery, and biblical justifications against gays and lesbians are just as wrong, and will be proven wrong in time, as biblical justifications for slavery were. The religious right, however, are bolstering their arguments against marriage equality especially by pointing to a new poll showing most find homosexuality immoral – but since when do we base civil rights on morality? I find adultery and murder immoral, but adulterers and murderers, as long as they are heterosexual, still have the right to marry the man or woman of their choice. Civil rights do not turn on whether one finds another person’s behavior moral or not.

While it’s kind of fun, however, to see the religious right toil and spin over Obama’s bold speech to gay and lesbian activists, I remain cynical. Just as the scariest words one can ever utter to me is the phrase, “I’m a Christian,” it scares me even more when President Obama starts making promises to the gay and lesbian community. For example, he said that he has “called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and to pass the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act.” That’s cold comfort. He’s also called on Congress to do the right thing on health care and we see how that’s been working out so far.

I hold out little hope that this Congress will do anything like repeal DOMA. The president can call on them all he wants, that doesn’t mean anything good will come of it. Just as I only believe people are Christian only when they act like it, I’ll only believe that this president will act on gay and lesbian issues when I see some results. Otherwise, thanks for the lovely speech, Mr. President. When I step outside of my natural cynicism though, the importance of Obama’s speech to the HRC audience is breathtaking. No other president has so openly promised this much to our community. No other president has taken this much time and care in expressing himself to us. As Adele Stan points out, he even made the dangerous assertion that gay rights are synonymous with the civil rights struggle of African Americans.

This is not a statement without some risk for Obama. It’s a comparison often met with resentment in the African-American community — a comparison few have the moral authority to make. The nation’s first African-American president is one of them.

Gays and lesbians should not simply take Obama at his word, though. In his speech, he was clear that he’s not going to fulfill all these promises on his own – the gay and lesbian community still must convince him to act.

And that’s why it’s so important that you continue to speak out, that you continue to set an example, that you continue to pressure leaders — including me — and to make the case all across America.

Honestly, the cynic in me can’t completely blame Obama if nothing gets done on equality for gays and lesbians. He’s been clear that he needs to be pressured to do the right thing. Ultimately, it’s up to the gay and lesbian community to make its case and move both the hearts and minds of leaders like Obama. Two days after the speech, a friend of mine sat in my office full of emotion saying that she had been profoundly moved by Obama’s words. “It’s clear,” she said, “that in his heart he’s not quite there yet on gay and lesbian issues. He knows that it’s the right thing to do – that gays and lesbians must have equal rights in all areas – but while he knows it intellectually, it just hasn’t gotten to his heart yet.” She saw an intelligent, caring man who is honestly struggling with the issue of gay and lesbian equality and valiantly trying to put his intellect and his emotion together on the issue. My old cynical heart took comfort in her words and I hope her perception is right. I also hope that Obama will reconcile the two with enough time left in office to actually move the rights of gay and lesbian Americans forward – instead of again leaving us stranded with eloquent words and continued second-class citizenship.

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