The LGBT community will no longer be satisfied with pretty words
If I were advising President Barack Obama on his speech to the Human Rights Campaign’s Washington, D.C., dinner on Saturday night, Oct. 10, I would tell him to pay as much attention to the ornery jeers from protesters outside the dinner as he does to the cheers coming from inside the ornate ballroom.
"The last thing we need is more flowery rhetoric in front of rich, self-effacing gays and lesbians dressed up like penguins," said Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network, who plans to picket the event.
The cross mood expressed by Thayer is indicative of the restlessness felt by the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender grassroots in the early stages of Obama’s presidency.
HRC deserves a heaping helping of praise for furnishing a primetime platform for Obama to impart his message. But the president and HRC must realize that the stakes are even higher than the price of the steaks served in the ballroom of the black-tie affair.
While no one will likely yell, "You lie," in the middle of his remarks, there will be a collective sigh if all we get is a pretty speech.
Let it be known that the LGBT community is no longer interested in being pals with the powerful or having the famous tell us we are fabulous — unless it leads to action. What we want from Obama is a fighter working to set us free. We need signed paper in the form of laws, not paper-thin promises and illusive signs of hope.
I would also advise Obama that it will be considered a letdown if the centerpiece of his talk is to offer a push for hate crime legislation.
Americans of all political stripes are generally in agreement that it is wrong to beat or kill gay people, so this is legislation that requires a bare minimum of political capital. There are presently laws on the books that punish perpetrators of such crimes, so some form of redress already exists. (Although, hate crime laws are still important to ensure justice is consistently served.)
At a bare minimum, the president should vow to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by the end of the year. He should forcefully condemn the Defense of Marriage Act. It would be wise, as well, for Obama to use this opportunity to make a compelling case, as only he can, for scrapping the disastrous "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.
Gay activist David Mixner raises a good point when he says that Obama should oppose a ballot measure to overturn the freedom to marry in Maine: "It is inconceivable to me that the hosts would allow him to attend the dinner without a solid commitment that he will oppose the hate filled initiative in Maine. That would be unacceptable," wrote Mixner on his Web site. "How exciting would it be at the HRC National Dinner to have the president in a timely and unequivocal way put the power of the presidency behind our historic and epic struggle in Maine?"
The day following the HRC event, thousands of LGBT people will stream into Washington for the National Equality March. Obama will be greeted like a conquering hero or a sweet-talking zero, depending on what he says the night before at the podium. I just hope his handlers are keenly aware that the crowds that mass are expecting some bills to pass.
During the primaries, Hillary Clinton portrayed him as a slick salesman who could not follow through on his grandiose promises. In the general election, John McCain said Obama was an empty "celebrity" who would not deliver. Standing on principle for LGBT equality would go a long way in diffusing and dispelling this still potent line of criticism.
Obama can either be history by appeasing a far right that will never support him, or do what is morally right and make history with an unforgettable speech at the HRC dinner.
Wayne Besen is a longtime LGBT rights activist and executive director of Truth Won Out, an organization fighting anti-gay religious bigotry.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 9, 2009.