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Obama’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” On Marriage

This commentary is the opinion of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin

Jim Burroway

May 7th, 2009

When Pres. Barack Obama tried to quell the outrage over selecting Saddleback pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the Inauguration, Obama promised to be a “fierce advocate of equality for gay and Lesbian Americans.” But lately he hasn’t been so fierce. Obama has backtracked on his promise to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and a recent re-vamping of the White House web site on Civil Rights has dropped all mention of repealing the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

The silence on DOMA is particularly strange because during the Democratic primaries he used his stance on DOMA’s full repeal to distinguish himself from then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. She wanted to retain the provisions permitting states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. He campaigned on its full repeal.

But since then, Obama has clammed up altogether as a number of states have taken action to recognize same-sex marriage. Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, and possible New Hampshire — that’s quite a remarkable procession in just a few short weeks. It’s hard to imagine such a remarkable series of developments go unnoticed. But the phrase “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is quickly becoming an apt description for the White House’s approach to marriage:

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked during the press briefing Wednesday if President Obama had any reaction to same-sex marriage becoming legal in Maine.

… Jake Tapper (The Advocate): Does the President or the White House have a reaction to the Governor of Maine signing a same-sex marriage bill?

Robert Gibbs: No, I think the President’s position on same-sex marriages has been talked about and discussed.

Tapper: He opposes same-sex marriage.

Gibbs: He supports civil unions.

Tapper: Does that mean that he’s going to say or do anything against what the citizens of Maine —

Gibbs: Not that I’m aware of. I think the President believes this is an issue that’s best addressed by the states.

This silence over marriage is just one example of Obama’s timidity where LGBT civil rights are concerned. Richard Socarides, who served as a Clinton White House staffer from 1991 to 1993 and was openly gay at the time, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend asking what happened to our “fierce defender”?

I understand that the president has his hands full saving the economy. But across a broad spectrum of issues — including women’s rights, stem cell research and relations with Cuba — the Obama administration has shown a willingness to exploit this change moment to bring about dramatic reform.

So why not on gay rights? Where is our New Deal?

It is the memory of 1993’s gays-in-the-military debacle (and a desire never to repeat it) that has both the president’s advisers and policy advocates holding back, waiting for some magical “right time” to move boldly.

This is a bad strategy. President Obama will never have more political capital than he has now, and there will never be a better political environment to capitalize on. People are distracted by the economy and war, and they are unlikely to get stirred up by the right-wing rhetoric that has doomed efforts in the past.

The White House did release a statement urging passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and that is not something that should go unnoticed. But Obama’s timidity on the more substantive gay issues is now getting noticed outside the gay press and blogosphere. The New York Times has noticed his absence today — and brought out a key inconsistency on his stance toward marriage:

Anything substantive he might say on same-sex marriage — after the Iowa ruling, the White House put out a statement saying the president “respects the decision” — would be endlessly parsed. If Mr. Obama were to embrace same-sex marriage, he would be seen as reversing a campaign position and alienating some moderate and religious voters he has courted.

…Mr. Obama supports a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that said states need not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Opponents of same-sex marriage say that is an inconsistency.

Opponents aren’t the only ones who see this as an inconsistency. Your humble scribe does so as well. And with DOMA being deep-sixed from the White House Civil Rights web stite, my willingness to give Obama the benefit of the doubt shrinks proportionately.

In the past several weeks, there has been a remarkable sea-change on marriage equality. Four (possibly five) states are being added to the marriage equality column. This was unimaginable just a few months ago in the wake of California’s passage of Prop 8. But these remarkable development has been utterly invisible to the White House.

Obama promised bold leadership on these issues but we haven’t seen it. How can he be bold when he’s not even bothering to catch up?



May 7th, 2009 | LINK

And yet my fellow gays have hailed him as our savior…

Priya Lynn
May 7th, 2009 | LINK

Pomo, I don’t think any of your fellow gays hailed Obama as a savior – just better than the alternative. And although its early yet so far he has been better. He signed the U.N. resolution calling for an end to the criminalization of gayness whereas Bush sided with countries like Iran in refusing to do so. He’s supported the hate crimes law whereas Bush committed to vetoing it.

No one thought him to be perfect, just better, and even if he does nothing more he’s already been that.

Priya Lynn
May 7th, 2009 | LINK

Not saying that I’m content with what Obama’s done, just that being better is a pretty low bar to meet and that’s already been done.

Timothy Kincaid
May 7th, 2009 | LINK

Speaker Pelosi will not be helping us either on issues of marriage. In a press conference she indicated that the federal rights of legally married same-sex couples is a very low priority to her and the House.

When asked specifically about federal rights for married gays, she listed her priorities on gay issues as:

turning the economy around
dealing with an energy policy
health care for all Americans
hate crimes bill
gays in the military

In other words, federal marriage rights aren’t even on her agenda.

It in unconceivable to me that 10% of the states are being denied a right that states have held since the inception of this country: to have the federal government recognize such marriages as they perform. Libertarian minded folk and states rights folk really should be outraged.

Brian Torwelle
May 7th, 2009 | LINK

I’m sorry. Gotta disagree with this one. Obama has much bigger things to do right now with the economy.

I’m confident that he will address these issues as promised, but keep in mind, he also has to try to get reelected. If it looks like he is beginning to support same-sex marriage as many of his right wing critics have said, then it could really hurt his chances.

And, let’s be honest, we’ve made tremendous progress in the last few years, but we’re still a few presidents away from Federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

May 7th, 2009 | LINK

I’m with Brian partly, Obama is trying to keep dozens of plates spinning at the moment. We’re only 4 months into a 4 year presidency. And as described by the daily show, he is trying to deal with a big economic crisis sandwiched by the bread of two wars – a s**t burger if ever there was one. Give him some time already.

May 7th, 2009 | LINK

I’d be much more ready to give him time/the benefit of the doubt if he’d at least mention occasionally that LGBT issues haven’t been forgotten about instead of retreating like a turtle into “Um…we’re getting there….” whenever him or his surrogates are asked about the issues.

May 7th, 2009 | LINK

Mr. Obama’s stance on equal marriage can only be described as insipid and pathetic. What an utter shame that Mr. Obama was one of the best of the bunch.

LGBT Americans deserve much better than this.

May 7th, 2009 | LINK

The timidity is of concern. But since my partner has been out of work for 5 months now, the jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs agenda is not a bad one from my perspective.

May 7th, 2009 | LINK

@Timothy: Well if we can keep scrutinizing Pelosi’s no-show on marriage rights, San Francisco is the one place that that issue alone could get her voted out.

May 7th, 2009 | LINK

Obama promised nothing on marriage We knew he had already compromised on that during the election. It gives him nothing to support it now, and really, doesn’t help the cause all that much. Progressive states have to march into the fray (as they’re doing), the feds can mop up the laggers later.

He did give us promises on DADT. And apparently he could stop the most egregious witch hunts administratively (which shouldn’t be happening under DADT, seems that we’re back to the ’50s). And, frankly, he doesn’t have much to loose from addressing DADT – it does not have majority support in this country anymore, and with the lightning speed that gay rights are moving, in 2012 DADT should look like ancient history. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt now – after all, there’s only so much oxygen in each day – but if he does not take on DADT in his first year he’s gonna smell real bad to me.

May 7th, 2009 | LINK

Pomo : Though I voted for Obama, and I’m still not unhappy with my choice, the way gays hailed Obama as a savior was downright embarrassing. All you have to do is go to various gay blogs, from last election day, and see. Some of them actually threw parties! One guy actually decided to show photos of his own crying face as election results came in. It was bizarre.

May 8th, 2009 | LINK

I think there’s good reason not to get too excited about a repeal of DADT anytime soon. I was reading this article in the Washington Post yesterday, regarding Obama’s National Security Advisor, James L. Jones. In the second page of the article, you’ll read:

“When Obama was under pressure to review the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service members, Jones said he went “to see him personally on it” and advised him not to add another controversy to his already-full plate. The president, Jones said, took his advice.”

So you’re right to be sad and frustrated . . . it doesn’t sound like we’re gonna get any boldness anytime soon.

While I don’t think he’s our “savior” by any stretch, I do think he’s WAY better than the alternative would have been! Just as a quick example, I’m pretty sure that DC’s recent city council measure to allow out-of-state same-sex measures would have been overturned by a President McCain.

May 8th, 2009 | LINK

*that should have read “out-of-state same-sex MARRIAGES. . .”

May 8th, 2009 | LINK

Keep in mind that this issue has hit the Huff Post and CNN and is gaining some traction in the MSM. Obama hates a controversy, I’d look for him to at least address the LGBT community more directly real soon.

May 28th, 2009 | LINK

Ditto Pro! My friends were so into candidate Obama that I thought I was going to loose them as friends after I voted for McCain. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! Obama is acting like a sissy towards our civil rights! I’ll remind my friends once again about their “savior” in less than 4 years!

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