When then-Sen. Barack Obama made his first run for the White House in 2008, he campaigned for LGBT support by pledging to overturn the military’s discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, and to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. And even though candidate Obama stood steadfastly by professed belief that marriage was “a sacred union” between one man and one woman, he did support “civil unions” that would provide same-sex couples with federal protections and benefits.
So on that November night in 2008, when Obama stepped onto that stage in Chicago to claim the presidency and make history, the LGBT community, for the most part, rejoiced with him.
“It’s been a long time coming but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” the president-elect declared that night. And his LGBT supporters believe that “change” included good things for them.
But it didn’t take long for the rainbow shine to begin to wear off the newly-elected President Obama.
It started with Obama asking anti-gay evengelist Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. And it quickly became clear that repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was not the priority for Obama’s administration that his LGBT supporters had believed it to be.
Yes, the president and First Lady Michelle Obama did host the first-ever LGBT Pride month reception at the White House. But that very same month, the Department of Justice submitted an infuriatingly anti-gay brief in a lawsuit challenging DOMA. The LGBT bloggers and press jumped on the brief, putting it out there in such a way that even the mainstream press had to take note. And the president’s support in the LGBT community slid even further.
But that was also the beginning of the change. The president and his administration began, slowly but surely, to find their footing on LGBT issues, leading up to that moment on June 26 this year when President Obama said, “This morning, the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so, they’ve reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law.
That all people should be treated equally, regardless of who they love.”
In just eight short years, President Obama had gone from calling marriage a sacred union between a man and a woman, to calling the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling “a victory for America;” from having right-winger Rick Warren deliver his inaugural invocation to bathing the White House is rainbow lights to celebrate marriage equality.
And now, journalist Kerry Eleveld is offering an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at Obama’s first four years in office in her new book Don’t Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency.
Eleveld, former news editor for The Advocate magazine, spent four years covering Obama for that magazine, first on the campaign trail and then in the White House. She even interviewed Obama three times, including one interview in the Oval Office. Out of those years was born Don’t Tell Me to Wait, part personal memoir and part political history.
Eleveld opens the book with an introduction set in Chicago on Nov. 4, 2008, where she recalls her own mixed emotions at watching Obama elected even as Prop 8 won in California, and moves through those turbulent four years during which the president’s popularity among his LGBT constituents rose and fell and rose again.
But Don’t Tell Me to Wait is far from an ode to Obama. In fact, it is more a tribute to the activists who held steadfast and insisted on holding the president’s feet to the fire, keeping him — and his administration — accountable for the promises he made.
It is an engaging account of one journalist’s experience in covering an historic campaign and an even more historic first term in office. Eleveld doesn’t shy away from including her own part in the dramas that played out, like when she asked a question on DOMA during a White House press briefing that put the issue on the mainstream press’ radar.
But she puts more emphasis on the efforts of other journalists, bloggers and activists and on how those efforts changed the course of Obama’s first term. And the prolific footnotes included throughout make it obvious the book is well-researched; there are, in fact, some 95 pages of notes at the end of the book.
Don’t Tell Me to Wait is an easy read, well-written and clear despite some of the convoluted politics it is detailing. And in the years to come, when all people remember are the victory speeches and the White House wrapped in rainbow lights, it will serve as an important reminder of the truth of how the battle for equality was fought and of those who deserve the credit for the victory.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 23, 2015.