The issue of a communication gap between the LGBT community and the White House was raised at the LGBT White House briefing two weeks ago with Melody Barnes, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
The answers given by Ms. Barnes to questions about the White House LGBT communication gap seemed to confirm, rather than alleviate, the concerns expressed by the attendees.
There was a sense of denial. The White House is trying hard to communicate, so therefore, they must be communicating, despite what these pestilential media types across the table were insinuating.
There was no responsibility taken for the fact that the White suggested in Justice Department court briefs that marriage equality is like incest and child marriage, not once, but twice, and that homosexuality is incompatible with military service.
Communication gap? What communication gap?
Both Chris Geidner of MetroWeekly and Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend asked about this communication gap. The answers were interesting.
Here's the questions and the answers. (Summary at the bottom if you prefer.)
Chris Geidner, Senior Political Writer, MetroWeekly
Geidner: The question that I have relates to the White House's ability to communicate the mission that he's set forth. I think there are lot of concerns about the ability of the White House to communicate openly with the LGBT community about the steps that they are planning and that they are taking. Some of the more significant setbacks with the LGBT community have been during times when there has been Administration action, mainly the filing of briefs by the Justice Department, without any effort to inform the LGBT community about what's going on. I want to know, one, if you see that as a problem that the White House has had, two, what steps are being taken to change that and, three, if there aren't, why not?
Barnes: I would say that across the board and with the full range of issues that we work on, domestic policy, economic policy, national security issues, all the communities that we work with, there is a constant effort to better communicate the message and better communicate what we're doing. We have an extensive outreach component to the White House, and a communication component to the White House. I believe my colleagues are constantly touching and communicating and working with individuals and all the relevant communities. That we could do better -- I think we always strive to do better. I certainly also welcome your suggestions as I would imagine my colleagues would, for ways that would be more effective, and that we are able to both communicate what we are trying to do, as well as get feedback from members of the community, so that we are refining and learning from your perspective as we try to do our work better. But I would call that a constant effort, something that we are trying to do. It might be helpful if you share more specific information about what --
Geidner: Specifically in terms of, one of the major problems with the LGBT community is the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask Don't Tell in court. Everybody at this table knows that I'm one of the people who has been most sympathetic to the defense of those bills. But at the same time I've had a real concern about the lack of explanation about why that is happening from the White House and why that is the appropriate thing to do if the White House has made that determination, that I think has enabled, every time there is a filing, for there to be an additional round of "what is the White House doing wrong and why are they doing that?".
Barnes: I would imagine in part, and I think this would be human, that when there's a filing it kind of scrapes at the scab one more time, and it reminds people of the posture of the Government one more time. But that doesn't change the rationale behind what we have to do. I think the President has said this and I believe members of this Administration, my colleagues, have said this, that we can't pick and choose the laws that we defend. There may be a small fraction of a fraction of a percentage of examples where the government has not defended a law on the books. But we believe, the President believes, that given his office he has to defend the law. At the same time, I think we have done a better job of also communicating in the briefs that it doesn't mean that we don't believe that DOMA is discriminatory. But at the same time, we have an obligation to defend the law of the land, and once you start to pick and choose you will also end up in a situation, at some future point with some other Administration, where people are saying why won't you defend this -- this is the law of the land. And the Administration will say, we have the right to pick and choose. Hate crimes is a key example where it's being attacked and we're defending it. Another Administration, if they didn't take seriously their obligation under the law, to defend the law of the land, would make another choice there. I think part of what we are trying to do, and this goes to some of your point perhaps, is communicate our disagreement with a particular law at the same time we are also communicating our obligation.
After this answer to Chris Geidner's question, Pam Spaulding followed up with a question.
Pam Spaulding, Pam's House Blend
Spaulding: Why now are we having something like this? I don't quite understand the delay in addressing the community, particularly the New Media, with a high-level official like yourself. This would have been much more productive if it happened earlier on in this term, because, unlike what I think I just heard, many of us feel that our readership is very unhappy with how things are going in terms of progress from the President. I don't think that they are in step with the relationship between our organizations that represent us. I wonder if the President is well aware of that disconnect. How can that be repaired with more briefing of this type with the grassroots and the netroots, because I think there is a problem here.
Barnes: I just want to scratch a little bit on, because I literally, I'm trying to better understand something you are saying here.... You said that there's, you were talking about the relationship between your readers and your organizations...?
Spaulding: That there's a big gulf between what our organizations, like HRC, --
Barnes; Oh okay, alright...
Spaulding: -- represent as progress, and what people at the grassroots, at the state level, who are hurting, who are not getting, who don't have protections. I come from North Carolina and there are no protections. That is the connection the White House has with the community. There is a big gulf there, which is seen every day and heard every day.
Barnes: Well, I guess first of all I would say we are here now, and that shows a desire to be engaged. I would also say, I believe that my colleagues who are in the communications offices and the outreach offices have had -- I don't know if it's daily, but I would probably say it should probably be very frequent communications and conversations -- with those of you sitting at this table and others who aren't at this table about the work this Administration is doing. I would say earlier, to Chris's question, there's always a desire and effort to do better. That's why we are sitting here now. I think if we all decide, if you all believe that this is something helpful, that this is the kind of thing that we want to do more of and more frequently going forward.
Spaulding: Just to follow up with that. I think I'm going to speak on behalf of Kerry Eleveld [of The Advocate] (laughter). This President hasn't had a sit-down interview with someone from the LGBT community. Why is that, when other groups of other constituencies have had that access?
Barnes: I will be honest. I will go back and share this with my other colleagues, with the Domestic Policy people. I can talk to you about policy, and I'm certainly able to share that with others, but that's the focus of the work that I do. For example, related to that, talking about the work that Jeff Crowley [Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy] and his team are doing all over the country at community meetings in city after city after city, because we do want to hear from members of the community as we are developing policy in the White House.
Summary: A For Effort
To summarize, in addressing the communication gap, Ms. Barnes said that they're already communicating every day or close to it with the LGBT community, and that they're trying to get better at communicating.
When asked if the President understood the disconnect between the gay advocacy organizations to which the White House talks, and the rest of the LGBT community, she glibly said something like "well, we're here now, aren't we?" She also said that we could have more briefings, if we thought it would be helpful. (My question: how helpful was this one?) She noted that one official, Jeff Crowley, of the Office of National AIDS Policy, talks to people all over the country.
She defended the Administration's need to issue those outrageous court briefs by saying that Administrations have an obligation to defend the law of the land. (Tell that to President Reagan, with his non-acquiescence policy, and Bush 44 with his signing statements.) She did not explain why other Administrations had declined to defend existing laws on occasion, or how DOMA and DADT are different, saying instead that such instances were very rare.
She did not address the supposed necessity of filing court briefs containing invidious comparisons to incest and child marriage, and the idea that being gay is incompatible with military service.
These were non-answers. They did not defuse concern about a communication gap -- they highlighted it.
I hope that the White House will sponsor more LGBT briefings, as Ms. Barnes suggested. They would focus the attention of the White House on our concerns and needs, forcing someone to think more deeply about these issues and come up with real answers.
This is part of a series of posts based on the White House briefing. The previous post in the series can be found here.