Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why the Obama Administration is Anti-Gay

There are two questions here: Why do I think that the Obama administration is anti-gay, and what are the reasons behind the Obama administration's anti-gay politics, policies, and actions?

I like to make a clear distinction between the homophobic and the anti-gay. Homophobia is psychological, social, cultural, personal. Anti-gay refers to the realm of politics, policy, and action. Either can refer to attitudes or notions. In most instances, the homophobic and the anti-gay overlap, but not in every instance. In arguing that the Obama administration is anti-gay, I do not argue that it or any of its members are homophobic ... there is no evidence on that, though lots of us are starting to have some suspicions.

The term anti-gay was common parlance in the gay liberation circles in which I traveled in the 70s. We commonly used it to describe the politics, policies, and actions of the majority of liberal and left groups who were at best openly embarrassed by us and thought that we provided fodder to their enemies. They most assuredly didn't like the loud, swarming, irreverent, open fags that we were.

The Obama administration shares this attitude: they want gay people to sit down, shut up, and wait. "It's not time, yet." "We support you, but there are bigger issues now that we have to attack." Just leave it to us, we will do the right thing when the time is right.” The one difference is that our liberal opponents in the 70s were not quite as nice about it as that. But nice and a DOJ brief will get you a DOJ brief. We don't care about nice.

The success of gay liberation arose wholly because we did not sit down, shut up, or wait. We viewed those who told us to do so then as enemies of our movement, and we should have the same attitude now. (That includes the HRC whose leader complained to Obama in a recent letter of the "pain" the DOJ brief caused ... hey, dude, it's not about some vague feeling of discomfort. It's about the blatant breach of our civil rights.)

That is why the Obama administration is anti-gay.

So, question number 2: what are the reasons behind the Obama administration's anti-gay politics, policies, and actions? I think the answer is obvious, and it is deeply disturbing. Just as Obama's failure to lead on gay rights at this tipping point for our movement is a signal of his now undeniable general reluctance to lead, so the reasons behind the anti-gay politics of his administration signal a larger and depressing fall back to the most retrograde characteristics of American politics.

So let's start with the anti-gay attitudes that we should just wait, that Obama is a "fierce" (yawn) defender of gay civil rights, that he is wisely picking the right time. This sort of argument relies on a zero-sum game political arithmetic. Obama only has so much political capital, and he needs to spend that on the big priorities.

This is reactionary and defeatist.

Political capital is not some storehouse in which gray-complected minions tote up the points scored and spend them parsimoniously; political capital exists only in its exercise. Obama shows in his political arithmetic an almost exclusive orientation to his right. Notwithstanding that the Republicans have given him nothing, nada, zip, he continues to court them. In the meanwhile, as many note, the public political dialogue centers almost exclusively on the madness of the far right against cool hand Luke Obama.

This attitude of engaging his opponents as friends and ignoring his friends as if they were opponents reveals a mechanical calculation rather than a dialectical approach ... arithmetic over calculus ... counting up rather than mobilizing ... electoralism against social change. Obama is looking to the next election, and that is the manner in which he most apparently resembles his predecessor.

In that context, think this through: Obama announces that he has ordered the military to suspend all activities surrounding DADT. The policy will remain in place as the brass figures out how to move forward; but not a single wooden nickel is to be spent on enforcing it. Rush Limbaugh goes into a frenzy ... and Obama makes a joke about it and invites a group of military Arabic translators, two of whom are gay, to the White House and praises the intelligence of the soldiery. The whole thing would be over in a flash.

So why doesn't he do it?

Imagine this, if you will: instead of slobbering like a sycophant about DOMA, the administration issues an opinion that DOMA raises the issue of the breadth of the 14th Amendment. We invite the court to comment. Rush Limbaugh goes into a frenzy .... and Obama makes a joke about it and invites a group of foster parents, two of whom are gay, to the White House and praises the commitment of ordinary Americans to do the right thing and raise children to be good citizens. The whole thing would be over in a flash.

So why doesn't he do it?

I think he doesn't do it because his political calculations are already focused on winning the next election. That is to say, Obama does not actually believe that he can be a paradigm changer like Roosevelt; he does not actually believe that a decade from now we could have a society in which as many accepted commonplaces changed as did from, say, 1930 to 1940, or 1940 to 1950. Obama is an incrementalist, not a radical.

His approach to gay civil rights in this seems to be a very exact calculation. Self-identified gays represent perhaps 3% of the electorate, and Obama gets 90% of those votes come hell or high water. But if evangelicals represent 20% of the electorate, and if he aspires to lock down 40% of them, then we are looking at 8% of the electorate. I figure that Obama figures that the 40% of evangelicals he can lock down are not fixated on the old culture war nonsense, that they are more focused on the activist side of christianity including a rising commitment to social justice especially among young evangelicals. But sin is still sin for them, so there is no upside from this arithmetic in goading them by openly supporting gay civil rights. This is why we are now hearing the highest ranking gay toadies on the Democratic side (including, sadly, Barney Frank) refer us to the second term in office!

So Obama is anti-gay because the arithmetic is bad, and he does arithmetic not calculus in his inner circles of political calculation. If that is the case, then the lie of his presidency is deeper than most of us thought, and the chances that this is a turning point in US history are dashed.

Depressing. The only answer is opposition. This president needs to feel the heat from his left flank. Gay people should lead the way.

Photos by Arod of the San Francisco City Hall demonstrations after Prop 8 passed, November 15, 2008.

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