What to Watch in 2009: A Roadmap to GLBT Politics in the New Year

After a gut-wrenching 2008, should we expect more of the same this year? Not necessarily, but we do need to pay close attention to the political landscape.

Here are three milestones to watch this year. Depending on what happens at each, GLBT America either will be celebrating new victories or doubled over from freshly inflicted wounds 12 months from now.

Will Barack Obama keep his word?

Inviting Proposition 8 supporter Rick Warren to give the opening prayer at the inauguration was certainly a kick in the stomach to queer America. But far more important to our everyday lives is the question of whether Obama will fulfill his campaign promises.

Obama’s transition site, <www.change.gov>, made a great start by categorizing GLBT issues under the heading of “Civil Rights.” On the site, the Obama team lists an ambitious agenda. This includes expanding hate-crime laws, passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act with gender identity included, providing civil unions to same-sex couples with “legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples,” and expanding adoption rights.

Also on Obama’s to-do list is repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, which keeps legally married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits; and repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on out lesbians and gays in the military.

Few politicos expect Obama to do all of that in his first 12 months, or even to begin working on each agenda item. In fact, the only promise Obama makes for his first year, according to the site, is the modest pledge to “develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies.”

With a near-depression looming and two wars at hand, the Obama administration won’t make GLBT rights a top priority. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect progress. What should we watch?

Signs of Danger: Congressional liberals move on hate crimes, job discrimination, and other legislation. Social conservatives scream, legislation stalls, Obama and his administration remain silent. An alternative scenario is that everyone is silent. There are no bills, no hearings, no votes. The Obama administration says it wants to clear the way for, um, more important issues.

Billboards of Hope: Obama not only continues to mention GLBT Americans positively, but his team works with Congress to push pro-gay legislation. Not a single angry statement emerges from out-Congressman Barney Frank’s office.

What will happen after the California Supreme Court rules on Proposition 8?

The proposition we all love to loathe is far from dead. Lawsuits are before the state Supreme Court. At issue is whether Prop 8 will be allowed to stand or be overturned, and whether 18,000 same-sex couples will remain married or be forcibly divorced.

Oral arguments are scheduled for March, and a ruling is expected later in spring. As important as that ruling will be, it’s what happens afterwards that will shape our future.

If Prop 8 is voided by the court, antigay forces are expected to try to recall the justices. A pro-gay ruling will also spark a backlash that could easily put a similar ban back onto the California ballot. If Prop 8 is upheld, pro-equality forces can mount their own campaign for marriage rights. In other words, no matter what the court does, the GLBT community will once again be fighting at the ballot box.

Signs of Danger: California’s pro-equality community is as disorganized and disconnected in April as it was in November.

Billboards of Hope: By April, old GLBT politicos have joined forces with new leaders to raise money and to create a newly energized and more politically savvy campaign.

Is this really Stonewall 2.0?

After Proposition 8 passed, thousands of angry protestors filled the streets. Gay political pundits, myself included, dubbed this Stonewall 2.0—the start of a new GLBT revolution.

But time moved on, and demonstrations began drawing smaller crowds. The “Day Without a Gay” effort, urging GLBT folks to skip work and “call in gay” in December, fell flat.

This sputtering protest movement, however, isn’t the most serious sign that the Great Gay Awakening may not be so great after all. Demonstrations can feel wonderful, but ultimately a protest won’t do half as much to win rights as a voter registration drive.

Obama’s presidential campaign proved that a neighbor-to-neighbor, block-by-block organizing effort can make history. The real issue for GLBT America is whether we will take these kinds of practical, political steps or be content to merely march down a street.

Will newly-energized folks flock to old organizations to bring new ideas and more money? Will they create their own groups to provide a different perspective? Either approach will make a difference.

Signs of Danger: Pro-equality Americans keep protesting, but organize nothing. The same folks who always attended political meetings in the past continue to attend and to pine with loneliness. The newly energized stay away.

Billboards of Hope: You all make a fool out of me.

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 or at [email protected]

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