Will DADT's Repeal Mend Obama's Rift With LGBT Leaders?

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When President Obama signs legislation Wednesday repealing "Don't ask, don't tell," he will fulfill one of his key campaign promises to both the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community and the entire nation. Yet while high-profile gay and lesbian pundits such as Rachel Maddow and Andrew Sullivan are roundly declaring the repeal to be Obama's victory, there remains a segment of the LGBT community for whom this president can do little or no good.

Indeed, despite the president's months-long maneuvering to end DADT's 17-year reign of terror, many LGBT voices are reducing his role to marginal, 11th-hour efforts to appease angry activists. And some are simply leaving him out of the picture entirely.

Writing for the Daily Beast, feminist author Linda Hirshman offered gratitude to soldier groups such as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network but made no mention of the White House. Influential lesbian blogger Pam Spaulding thanked Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), along with Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), but had no appreciative words for the president.


Over at the progressive site AMERICABlog, writer John Aravosis added a tepid thank-you to Obama at the end of a long screed: " … and even the President, who finally got into gear (albeit a tad late) and made the calls necessary to make this happen." Longtime LGBT leader David Mixner offered little more than a lukewarm thanks: "The repeal of DADT would not have happened without President Obama … he was clearly on our side." And Jim Burroway cleanly quipped, "In the end, President Obama's strategy worked after all. But it worked not so much because it was a brilliant strategy but because he was lucky."

Although a few individual writers hardly speak for the entire LGBT community, there's little doubt that the president has been vilified by many "gaystream" leaders since his election two years ago. Considering the president's impressive record on LGBT issues — from enacting hate-crime legislation to extending benefits to federal employees to ending the ban on HIV-positive visitors entering the United States — that anger seems confoundingly misdirected.

After all, wasn't it President Bill Clinton who approved both DADT in 1993 and the Defense of Marriage Act three years later — two of the most regressive laws in the history of civil rights legislation? And weren't LGBT rights further imperiled under President George W. Bush, who infamously opposed extending hate-crime legislation to protect LGBT people and promoted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution?

True, Obama must still undo DOMA as well as pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to meet all of his LGBT campaign pledges. But now that he's two-for-two in less than two years, isn't it time that Obama's gay haters began showing him some love? Or at least began moving on from the notion that Obama is a "homophobe," a "bigot," an "enemy of the gays" and any of the other epithets routinely hurled against him?


Although Obama once favored same-sex marriage, he now supports civil unions — a position shared by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the favorite among the LGBT community during the 2008 presidential campaign. Activists such as Spaulding regularly deride Obama's faith-based opposition to marriage equality and his now infamous quote: "For me as a Christian, [marriage] is a sacred union. God is in the mix." Indeed, that Obama is religious at all is often used by critics as proof of his anti-gay sentiments.

With the Obamas clearly no more churchgoing than the Clintons before them, why has Bill and Hill's Christian faith escaped the same kind of scrutiny? It's simple, AMERICAblog's Aravosis says: "Obama is the president; Hillary is not."


Yet Aravosis also offers a more alarming explanation — one echoed by fellow LGBT bloggers from Spaulding to Mixner: Obama is black — or at least biracial. And Obama's race shouldn't just make him sensitive to LGBT issues; it should make him more sensitive than the white presidents before him. And this includes white presidents like Clinton, who was responsible for the very regressive legislation our black president is currently saddled with repealing.

"Well-educated minorities [like Obama] — one would hope they would be more sensitive to other minorities," Aravosis explains. "That is the expectation: He should be trying harder because he is a minority."


Aravosis may merely be expressing a popular (yet unspoken) sentiment, but the notion that African Americans should be held to a higher standard than their white counterparts is the very definition of racism itself. What's more, like most race- (or racist-) based ideologies, it places the president in a position where even his greatest pro-gay achievements will — like the repeal of DADT — never fully satisfy his critics. At best, Obama's victories will be rendered Pyrrhic; at worst, they will be repackaged as an act of generosity by his (mostly white) naysayers.

"All of the activist heat [to repeal DADT] may actually have saved Obama's presidency," Aravosis says. "The repeal could still blow up in his face, but if implemented right, it really might save him."


Perhaps most telling of all, bloggers like Aravosis and Spaulding have virtually no impact on mainstream LGBT politics or thinking. As the GQR poll noted, even the most followed LGBT blogs, like Andy Towle's Towleroad and Queerty, were read by a mere 3 percent of respondents; AMERICAblog by 2 percent; and Spaulding's Pam's House Blend, a scant 1 percent.

The disconnect between the bloggers' perspectives and that of the LGBT masses is not necessarily surprising. After all, "there are multiple communities within the LGBT 'community'," says Juan Battle, professor of sociology, public health and urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "Some gay people approve of the president and some don't — just like in the larger society."


Despite the disconnect, one person who certainly is reading Aravosis, Spaulding and Towle is Obama himself. He invited them to the White House for the DADT-repeal signing, along with activists such as former Lt. Dan Choi and GetEQUAL's Robin McGehee. As some of his harshest critics, the bloggers and activists are certain to continue demanding that Obama live up to the rest of his "fierce advocate" campaign pledges. Nonetheless, the invites confirm that the Obama White House has — at least for this week — reached a much needed détente in the battle to sway LGBT public opinion.

David Kaufman is a New York-based writer who regularly contributes to the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Time and Monocle.

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