Left, Behind on Obama’s Warren Strategy

I’ve been intrigued by the lambasting received by Bob Ostertag over at the Huffington Post in response to his recent post on the Obama/Rick Warren controversy. In his defense of Obama Ostertag had the temerity to express his ambivalence at holding up gay marriage as the centerpiece of the queer liberation movement.

“I did not appreciate… the angry messages I received in my personal email account,” Ostertag wrote in a follow-up post.

It seems an odd time for the political and religious left to be eating its own.

For the record, I agree with just about everything Ostertag has said on these matters, both in his earlier, carefully outlined analysis and in the more spontaneous follow-up.

At the risk of calling down lefty wrath on my head, I thought I’d offer my own (queer) angle on gay marriage and Obama’s pre-inaugural maneuvering:

The world is a mess. Violence in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia threatens to further destabilize regions where chaos breeds religious extremism. The deep roots of the current economic crisis—a global economy powered by fossils fuels and unsustainable American and American-style consumerism—must be carefully but decisively eradicated. And a pernicious but largely unreported militarism at the leading edge of science needs to be exposed to the light of day.

Given these challenges, my first thought as a progressive queer—someone who sees these dysfunctions not as separate from heterosexism but as of a piece with it—is that expecting a basically sympathetic not-yet-commander-in-chief to attend unfailingly to each of my parochial concerns is a little, well, precious. I’m not starving, civil war isn’t raging on my doorstep and I have a warm, safe place to sleep.

These are small considerations only if you’re privileged enough to be able to take them for granted.

But on further reflection I have to say that I believe Obama’s choice of Warren, far from being a misstep that requires my forbearance, reveals a glimmer of our president-elect’s political genius.

Had Obama chosen, say, a lesbian minister or a gay Sufi or a transgender rabbi to intone pieties on January 20, the payoff for us queers would have been a few hours of warm fuzzy feelings that would’ve quickly been swept away by a tsunami of right-wing outrage. Regardless of your adamant or indifferent attitude toward gay marriage as the lodestar of our movement, an initiative to overturn Prop 8—or any of the other antigay legislation that passed during the last election cycle—would surely meet stiffer opposition as a consequence of Obama’s having thrown us a bone on Inauguration Day.

Do I imagine that Rick Warren and other religious conservatives are going to make common cause with us on issues related to sexual orientation after the pastor from Saddleback takes the stage in a few weeks? No, but you can already see the resistance to Obama’s agenda beginning to ebb among key thought-leaders in the Republican Party.

John McCain effectively defanged RNC attack dogs when he spoke in Obama’s defense after the scandal around Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich erupted; Pat Robertson had high praise for Obama in a recent interview with CNN; and when his antigay remarks began to unsettle religious moderates, Rick Warren felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to West Hollywood for a gays-are-people-too photo-op.

When a powerful political ally begins to play your opponents like a fiddle, you’re a fool to complain that he’s not letting you call the tune.

And unremarked in the pages of RD thus far is the possible appointment of William White, the openly gay chief operating officer of the Intrepid Museum Foundation in New York City, as Secretary of the Navy.

Early in his campaign, Obama promised to dismantle “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the sloppy compromise the Clinton administration cobbled together after its unskillful effort to repeal the ban on openly gay servicemen and -women inspired conservative revolt in Congress and the military establishment.

While Obama’s timetable for allowing queerfolk to serve openly has been pushed back, his consideration of White still hints at the kind of clear-eyed over-the-horizon thinking that I see in his selection of Warren. Religious conservatives have a soft spot for the military, and there is no surer way of driving a stake into the heart of conservative resistance to the advance of gay liberation than to allow the heroism of our queer brothers and sisters in uniform to shine forth.

The prospects for same-sex marriage—if that’s your cause—can only be helped by the repeal of the military service ban. In fact, if your long-term strategy is not simply to win a few skirmishes in the battle over gay rights but to change the course of the conflict decisively, revisiting “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is the place to start.

I suspect Barack Obama knows this. With any luck, the querulous queerfolk in his coalition will give him the space and the support he needs to get the job done.

So what’s my position on gay marriage? Like I said, I’m pretty much in the same camp as Ostertag—constellate your relationships in a way that maximizes love and stability for everyone involved. Why am I not bent out of shape by Rick Warren’s date with the dais on January 20? I can’t imagine that my life will be substantially altered by anything he will say, but it’s pretty easy for me to see how his having said it will help Obama to enact his agenda over the next few months—if not by winning him the support of conservatives, then at least by diminishing their resistance to change.

In times like these it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture. No cause of suffering is independent of any other, and if we’re not willing to support a president who appears to see this, we’ll have only ourselves to blame should our short-sightedness hinder his efforts to make a saner world for all of us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *