“Forty years ago,” begins a press release that you can be forgiven for overlooking, “patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn in New York City resisted police harassment that had become all too common for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Out of this resistance, the LGBT rights movement in America was born. During LGBT Pride Month, we commemorate the events of June 1969 and commit to achieving equal justice under law for LGBT Americans.”
This particular White House document (issued while most of us were watching President Obama negotiate some pretty tricky terrain in the Middle East) did not escape the notice of our brothers and sisters on the religious right.
“Homosexuality is nothing to be proud of,” Peter LaBarbera told One News Now, the online news division of the American Family Association. “The fact is people have left the lifestyle,” said LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality. “People have overcome homosexuality—I think that’s something to be proud of.”
“President Obama has committed his administration to support for the activist homosexual agenda,” was the lede at Life Site News, for a story that was picked up by several conservative Christian news outlets, including Catholic Online and Anglican Mainstream, and by aggregators like Pro Life Blogs and Christian Portal News.
One of the ironies in the broader reaction to Obama’s maneuvering around the issue of legal parity for queerfolk in various domains of American life is the fact that, like the busybodies on the religious right, many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have a hard time letting themselves feel good about this president.
“The proclamation is posted on the White House Web site, but is difficult to find,” observed Michael Foust of Baptist Press, which astutely focused on the element of the press release with the greatest near-term political consequences—the likely repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian service personnel. “[A]nd as of Tuesday afternoon [it] was not listed under the Web site’s category of proclamations—a fact that some homosexual activists were criticizing.”
Foust was putting the matter mildly.
“Obama is a better friend to Rick Warren’s constituency than to LGBT,” one “homosexual activist” remarked, apropos of the White House press release, on the Advocate’s Web site. “In fact, Obama is not now and has never been a friend of LGBT. I didn’t believe his lies before November 4, 2008, and I don’t believe his lies now.”
What pleases me in this unanimity of displeasure among restive queerfolk and the modern-day Pharisees who lovingly hate them is that it points toward Obama’s studied and decidedly progressive pragmatism—a quality you’re sure to find galling if you’re an ideologue of any stripe, but that you should prize above all else if you’re concerned with longterm social stability and the steady reduction of human suffering.
(I count myself in the latter camp, by the way.)
This center-left politics of the possible draws deeply from the theological lineage of Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr, which is abundantly evident in the language of a ballsy speech that Obama delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on MLK Day, 2008, when he was still a candidate in the Democratic primary campaign.
“For most of this country’s history,” Obama said, “we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man… And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.” The functional core of this political ethics is empathy—a word that my RD colleague Paul Gorrell has noted, along with other commentators, in the president’s description of his criteria for selecting a nominee to the Supreme Court and that also figured into Obama’s gently chiding MLK Day speech.
For a progressive pragmatist like Obama, the operation of empathy in politics doesn’t simply mean urging conservatives to put themselves in the place of, say, a gay couple that wants to be legally married, or an unmarried teenager who wants to terminate her pregnancy. More than this, empathy means being able to perceive the experience of those who resist your political initiatives so that you’ll know how far you can push them before you trigger a backlash that might undo any gains you’ve won. And it also means being willing to risk the ire of your fellow progressives by pointing out that they often suffer from the same “empathy deficit”—the phrase Obama used at Ebenezer—as their opponents on the right.
(“I refuse to feel sorry for people who have no backbone,” a commenter remarked when I expressed sympathy for closeted conservatives in a recent RD essay on the new documentary Outrage. “[I]f these politicians live as the author asserts ‘in their own private hell,’ then it is a hell of their own making.” Speaking of an empathy deficit…)
So I’m delighted that Obama has appointed scores of openly gay men and women to his administration; including nine appointments requiring Senate approval. Moreover, I get why scrapping the Defense of Marriage Act and taking further steps toward expanding the legal rights of gay and lesbian couples will require a longer time frame if those advances are to be sustainable. And I’m perfectly happy to wait a while longer for the LGBT rights speech Obama will likely deliver in conjunction with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Oh, you mean that, along with the aforementioned White House press release, you also missed Jonathan Capehart’s scoop in the Washington Post? Now that a comfortable majority of conservatives support the repeal of the service ban, such a speech won’t be long in coming from a president who knows that sustainable progress becomes possible at the point when your opponents are inclined to take fewer backward steps.