Editors' Note: Guest blogger Terry Leftgoff formerly served as the highest ranking openly gay officer of the California Democratic Party. He is currently an Environmental & Government Relations consultant living in West Hollywood.
TO: President Barack Obama
FROM: The Gays
SUBJECT: We're angry
There is growing alienation between the gay community and President Barack Obama. It exploded when the Obama Justice Department filed a demeaning and homophobic legal brief in a case involving DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), a law Obama has repeatedly pledged to repeal. Like a jilted spouse who has been repeatedly cheated on, the gay community is weary of broken promises and traumatized by relentless attack and betrayal.
There is a creeping sense of betrayal gripping our community. It is incredibly dispiriting. Five months is plenty of time to issue a simple Executive Order of which there have been many, but until this flare up, none about priorities of import to the gay community. (More on that later.) By comparison, President Clinton signed a slew of them before the lights went out on Inauguration Day.
There are soaring promises made by an inspiring candidate and there is real action when one assumes the mantle of power. So far there has been a dramatic and increasing gap between the two. And the soaring rhetoric about our issues has grown increasingly muted. There is an unsettling fear this Administration is avoiding our issues in an over-reaction to the problems the Clinton White House encountered when it first attempted to address gays in the military. Clinton ended up settling for the sub-human policy that is DADT (Don't Ask Don't Tell) and squandered precious political capital.
The silence has been increasingly overwhelming for weeks. Invite and feature a vocal homophobic minister at the Presidential Inauguration -- be patient and just keep watching us, we were assured. And we have been watching. This is what we saw:
- Several states legalized gay marriage -- no White House comment from a White House that loves to chatter.
- Scores of decorated and invaluable gay military service members -- who are essential to our national security and are critically needed -- suffer discriminatory forced discharges -- silence.
- Perhaps a Presidential stop loss order to keep those valiant soldiers on the job until DODT is addressed? Nope, sorry.
- When the California Prop 8 ruling stripped gays of the right to marry in that state while also recognizing the validity of over 18,000 gay marriages already entered into -- nada.
- When new federal constitutional challenges were filed against Prop 8 with national ramifications - loud silence.
- Gay couples are reported to be scrubbed from the upcoming federal Census (a Bush enacted policy intended to make us invisible) - sorry, no comment.
So, the fear goes, The Gays are being avoided - except when it comes to asking for $$$.
One measure of positive action in the West Wing is direct political appointments. While there have been two openly gay political appointments in the Obama Administration, which is underwhelming in itself, it is a sore secret there are NO senior advisers to this White House that are gay -- not a single one. This is troubling and problematic. Further, there appears to be no designated liaison to the gay community. So there is a sinking fear that in addition to backing away from us, this makes them tone deaf to our cries. By comparison, Bill Clinton made many notable and highly visible appointments reaching to the most senior levels of the White House.
Despite all this some of us might have continued to be patient -- until we got our noses shoved into it last week when the Obama Justice Department, in a spectacular triple flip reverse stumble, filed a detailed brief in a federal lawsuit filed against DOMA in CA. This was the first, albeit the weakest, of expected legal challenges against DOMA that have left us to anticipate this Administration's commitment.
How bad could it be? When it comes to DOMA - a law Obama declared abhorrent and made repeated public promises to rescind - his Administration instead filed a full throttled defense that was so inflammatory and homophobic it would make the Mormon Church proud.
Read the actual brief yourself.
The point, as in most things legal and political, is not about the obvious matter at hand, in this case the lawsuit. It is about the official and carefully crafted position this Administration chose to advance and the demeaning arguments it chose to embrace. As David Mixner, former senior advisor to President Clinton, wrote: "it undercuts every conceivable argument that the LGBT community would use to fight for the repeal of DOMA. Right-wing nut cases can now just simply quote horrible stuff from this hateful brief and proclaim loudly it was filed by the Obama Justice Department."
It was not just a singular inconsequential legal brief; it was this young Administration's first concrete action on its promise to repeal DOMA, a law which faces challenges on several fronts. Many of the most powerful challenges originate from gay and lesbian couples married in Massachusetts who have been denied vital federal rights, and the equal protection and contract reciprocity guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. One particularly compelling lawsuit is on behalf of openly gay US Congressman Gerry Studds' widower who has been denied the same treatment granted to widows of other members of Congress.
Was it really that bad? It was a major fumble and a huge insult. There were so many ways to have handled it without going out of the way to be disparaging. The President's brief endorsed the dehumanization of our lives, compared gay marriage to incest and pedophilia, and mocked the federal tax discrimination that forces gays to subsidize the benefits of marriage for others while excluding us from accessing those same benefits. Is that what President Obama thinks of our humanity and our dignity?
If this Administration had instead done nothing, it would be better than the damage that was done with that brief. How about a principled brief that methodically presented the President's oft-stated belief DOMA is discriminatory and should be rescinded? Instead we were treated to the kind of attack one would expect from the likes of George Bush and Lou Sheldon and it will potentially damage our cause and haunt this Administration for years to come.
But isn't the President required to defend an existing law even when he disagrees? Not at all and such an explanation is a lazy excuse. As has been explained by Richard Socarides, another former senior adviser to President Clinton, the President typically sets policy priorities that guide Justice Department legal argument.
Socarides writes: "To defend this brief is to defend the indefensible. From my experience, in a case where, as here, there are important political and social issues at stake, the president's relationship with the Justice Department should work like this: The president makes a policy decision first and then the very talented DOJ lawyers figure out how to apply it to actual cases. If the lawyers cannot figure out how to defend a statute and stay consistent with the president's policy decision, the policy decision should always win out."
Did Obama know about the brief? We can't be certain but it no longer matters. The Obama Administration has since defended the brief with casual dismissiveness and it has expressed no circumspection.
Last week's rushed announcement of a Presidential directive prohibiting workplace discrimination and extending limited federal benefits for the gay partners of a small number of federal employees is widely seen as a token gesture in hopes of quelling the growing anger - and an attempt to salvage the Democratic National Committee's GLBT Leadership Fundraiser next week. Significantly, it does not include the most critical family benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and pensions. Is it enough? Crumbs do not begin to nourish the starvation of justice denied.
David Mixner, summarizing the reaction of most of our community, told Politico, "Are they kidding us? Domestic partnership benefits WITHOUT health insurance because of DOMA? It is like rubbing salt in the wound."
Ann Rostow in the San Francisco Bay Times, capturing the mood of dejection, writes, "Obama is the chagrined husband who thinks a bunch of flowers will excuse an infidelity. And to make it worse, instead of roses from the florist, he picks up wilted daisies from the drugstore."
We want to believe, Mr. President. We really do.
Some say that falling on your face is still forward progress. Sometimes it's just gravity.
UPDATE: In the torrent of rapidly unfolding events following the uproar last week, there have been some late breaking developments. The Plum Line at the Washington Post reports, "The Obama Justice Department has reached out to major gay rights organizations and scheduled a private meeting for next week with the groups, in an apparent effort to smooth over tensions in the wake of the controversy over the administration's defense in court of the Defense of Marriage Act." Separately, The Wall Street Journal reports the White House has directed that same-sex marriages, unions and partnerships be reported in 2010 federal Census data. The data has routinely been collected but the Census Bureau had been directed to alter the data and had been blocked from including the actual data in its report.