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Where's Our 'Fierce Advocate'?

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.

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.

Second, he should move swiftly, as he promised during the campaign, to help secure passage of the bill now moving through Congress imposing new federal penalties for anti-gay hate crimes, as well as legislation allowing gays to serve in the military. Ten years have passed since Matthew Shepard was killed. We have endured 15 years of "don't ask, don't tell" discrimination. We have waited long enough.

Third, he should appoint a high-ranking, respected, openly gay policy advocate to oversee government efforts toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Give this person access to policymakers, similar to what has been done on urban policy and for people with disabilities. This is especially important because, unlike Clinton, who had gay friends such as David Mixner, Roberta Achtenberg and Bob Hattoy around to nudge him, Obama has no high-profile gay senior aides with a history in the gay rights movement.

Finally, Obama should champion comprehensive, omnibus federal gay civil rights legislation, similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and granting a basic umbrella of protections in employment, education, housing and the like (rather than the existing piecemeal approach to legislation). Such a bill should also provide for federal recognition of both civil unions and marriages as they are authorized by specific states.

Obama is in a good position, and the time is ripe for a new approach. Taking these steps might spare the country the trauma of devolving into a pervasive and divisive debate over gay marriage, which, after all, is not the only issue of concern to gay and lesbian Americans.

Gay voters who supported Barack Obama remain positive about him, and most are prepared to be patient. It's still early on gay rights for the Obama administration -- but now is the time to act boldly.

The writer, a lawyer in New York, served on the White House staff from 1993 to 1999, including three years as special assistant to President Bill Clinton.

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