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A Chance for Barack Obama to Take Bold Action on Behalf of Gay Americans

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By Richard Socarides
Saturday, May 2, 2009

In December, while trying to quiet the furor over his invitation of Rick Warren to take part in his inauguration, Barack Obama reminded us that he had been a "consistent" and "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." But at the end of its first 100 days, his administration has been neither.

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What makes this especially disappointing is that it comes during a crisis-driven "change moment" in our country's history that not only cries out for leadership but presents a particularly good climate for making substantial progress on gay equality.

As an adviser on gay rights to President Bill Clinton during his second term, I know how hard it is to achieve real progress. We learned that lesson acutely during Clinton's abortive first-term attempt to allow gays to serve in the military, an outcome for which he is still paying a steep legacy price.

But recent victories on gay marriage, a youth-driven paradigm shift in public opinion and the election of our first African American president make this a uniquely opportune moment to act.

I understand that the president has his hands full saving the economy. But across a broad spectrum of issues -- including women's rights, stem cell research and relations with Cuba -- the Obama administration has shown a willingness to exploit this change moment to bring about dramatic reform.

So why not on gay rights? Where is our New Deal?

It is the memory of 1993's gays-in-the-military debacle (and a desire never to repeat it) that has both the president's advisers and policy advocates holding back, waiting for some magical "right time" to move boldly.

This is a bad strategy. President Obama will never have more political capital than he has now, and there will never be a better political environment to capitalize on. People are distracted by the economy and war, and they are unlikely to get stirred up by the right-wing rhetoric that has doomed efforts in the past.

And people are willing to try new approaches. The court ruling legalizing gay marriage in Iowa represents a real opening, an opportunity to get "undecideds" to take another look not only at gay marriage but at gay rights in general. As Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin remarked, many Americans may be asking themselves, "If the [Iowa] Supreme Court said this, maybe I have to think anew."

Here is what Obama should do to seize this opportunity:

First, he should start talking about gay rights again, the way he did during the campaign. What made Clinton such a transformational figure of inclusion was his constant willingness to talk to and about gay people. When he said, "I have a vision and you are a part of it," you could feel his sincerity.

As president, Obama barely mentions gay and lesbian Americans. During his first 100 days, he has done so only while defending his selection of inauguration speakers. He was silent after the announcement of the Iowa decision -- one of the most important gay civil rights victories ever.


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