Twelve years ago this September, Bill Clinton broke my heart. Today, as I watch another Democrat courting GLBT voters as he runs for President, I can’t help but wonder if Barack Obama will do the same.
My heartbreak came on September 21, 1996, when Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). With that one action, the man who was supposed to be the first pro-GLBT President threw us under the bus. Because of DOMA, same-sex couples married today in California and Massachusetts can’t claim federal benefits, or see their marriages acknowledged in most other states. Should I even mention the Clinton Administration’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) debacle that continues to drive gays and lesbians out of the military?
Of course, that was a long time ago, in a different political climate. Today, even Hillary Clinton takes a far more positive stance on GLBT rights than her husband ever did.
But we have good reason to worry, and the basis for that concern has little to do with Obama. In the bare-knuckle world of politics, power counts. Despite political gains, GLBT voters still can’t swing elections in any but limited localities. The mere idea that we might make progress continues to inspire millions to vote against our rights in referenda, and against any candidates who are progay.
Until the GLBT community and our allies can guarantee victory for friends and defeat for opponents, the pressure on politicians to take antiqueer stances will be enormous.
I don’t know Obama personally, so I can’t even begin to guess if he will break under pressure. But he does remind me of another politician I know well: Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius.
I met Sebelius—now a potential Obama running mate—21 years ago, when she was a freshman member of the Kansas House, and I was covering the Legislature for a McClatchy newspaper. I once lobbied for GLBT issues in her Statehouse. From everything I’ve seen, she doesn’t have a homophobic bone in her body. And yet, that fact hasn’t translated into much help for GLBT people in Kansas.
At her core, Sebelius is a practical politician. She seldom takes unpopular positions. In an age when the constantly measured whims of public opinion can look like a speeding train, I can’t imagine her ever attempting to switch that train to another track.
Obama’s approach appears much the same. In a 2007 analysis of his eight years in the Illinois Senate, The New York Times called him “practical and shrewd.” Illinois lobbyist Paul L. Williams said Obama’s attitude was to wish for the moon, but to realize that “right now I’ve only got enough gas to go this far.”
In a 2004 interview with his hometown GLBT newspaper, the Windy City Times, Obama admitted he opposes same-sex marriage “primarily just as a strategic issue,” adding, “Strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed….I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I’m less concerned about the name.”
Since that time, Obama has shifted to the right on marriage—an issue where public opinion is still largely antigay. He now claims his stand comes from religious conviction. He even has adopted the language of the religious right, stating, as he did in June on ABC, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”
There are a multitude of reasons to support Obama. He is firm about his wish to repeal DOMA and DADT. He opposes a federal constitutional amendment banning marriage equality, and supports civil unions with full benefits. He favors the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with transgender rights included. As President, Obama could have the opportunity to appoint at least one US Supreme Court justice with moderate to progressive leanings.
Aside from opposing the federal marriage amendment, John McCain promises none of that. He endorsed an Arizona ban on marriage equality. He just announced support for the proposal that would do the same in California. Despite rumblings that Log Cabin Republicans might endorse McCain, I can’t see one reason why any GLBT American should vote for him.
None of this, though, tells us whether we can trust that Obama won’t pull a Clinton, and fold under pressure. Personally, I don’t think we can trust him.
However, to borrow the candidate’s favorite word, I do think we can hope. We can hope a President Obama will keep his promises, and sign pro-GLBT bills that get to his desk. More importantly, we can hope that, as President, he will do what he does best, and speak out for us. Already, he has done so in venues that hardly could be called gay-friendly, including taking the black community to task for having “scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.”
If Obama can find the strength to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to argue for equality and fairness, what a grand thing that will be!
Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor whose freelance writing has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Salon.com, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication.