The White House Wants To Buy Us A Drink

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

Jim Burroway

June 22nd, 2009

Last week, word went out that the Justice Department will meet with LGBT groups to try to iron out how the Justice Department can go forward with future litigation with DOMA without insulting a key group of fellow Americans. I think that has the potential of being a very good move, and I’m glad LGBT advocacy groups are being invited to this working meeting. But we are also learning that the White House plans on inviting LGBT leadership to a cocktail party of some sort later in the week. I can’t think of anything more inappropriate than that.

I think Michelangelo Signorile sums it up just right. I agree that it was important for LGBT leaders to be on hand when President Barack Obama signed the president’s memorandum providing for very limited benefits for gay employees. It was, as Signorile points out, LGBT business, and we expect LGBT leaders to be on hand whenever LGBT business is being conducted. And it’s good that LGBT leaders will be meeting with the Justice Department tomorrow. Again, more business.

But a cocktail party? I can’t imagine that any self-respecting gay person would agree to go to a cocktail party at this stage in our difficult relationship with the current administration, although I have to concede that House and Senate Republicans, even some of the most conservative ones, have taken the White House up on similar invitations.

But still, I think that attending a cocktail party sends two wrong signals. One, serious business like what we’ve gone through over the past week calls for serious and frank meetings. What we need is actual movement on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” enacting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and (this one was supposed to be “easy”) finally enacting the Hate Crimes bill that was supposed to have come out this week but now is more likely before Congress recesses in August, if Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid can be taken at his word. We’re looking for real movement and a plan forward, not drinks and witty reparté.

And there’s another message that I have trouble squaring. The Human Rights Campaign in particular has labored under criticisms of being too cozy with the Washington power structure, and that those cozy relationships have led the HRC to go easy on pressing for important issues like repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That’s the perception, and it’s one that the HRC may just now be growing sensitive to. This latest flap over the Justice Department’s DOMA brief led the HRC to play catch-up with grassroots anger and suspicion, and they did that by issuing an unusually sternly worded letter to the White House. If the HRC really wants to shed its image of the go-along-to-get-along Washington schmoozing machine, the worst thing they could do would be to take the White House up on this latest invitation.

It looks like, for the time being, our relationship with the Obama administration can be divided into two periods: pre-DOMA brief and post-DOMA brief. In the pre-DOMA brief days, this party would have been seen as a good sign. We would have rejoiced that the White House engaged in this symbolic act, and the HRC would have basked in the glow. But that was before the DOMA brief — and before there were cocktail invitations. That brief changed everything. One way to understand the negative reaction surrounding the presidentail memorandum is that symbolic acts no longer cut it. LGBT leaders need to be cognizant of that or risk their own relevance in the LGBT community.

Update: I’ve changed my mind.

Lindoro Almaviva

June 22nd, 2009

Great point. I would not impressed if the people that are supposed to defend us are cozying up with the ones that just 2 weeks ago were backstabbing us.

If the Washington closet cases need a place to cruise then let them go to a bar or a park like the rest of the people.

paul j stein

June 22nd, 2009

Maybe the HRC needs some response from contributors. Holding back funding would get the message across fast, very fast. Voting with cash restraint works with everyone!

Emily K

June 22nd, 2009

I think it sends a bad message in another way, too. It seems to send up a clear misunderstanding – intentional, or otherwise – about the lives and lifestyles of gays. We’re not bar-hopping partiers; in fact many gay bars are dying out. And, according to most of my older gay acquaintances, the bar-hopper never constituted a majority of gays, though it was once a very visible portion of us. While the image of the cosmopolitan “twink” hitting a swanky New York social club might still pop into minds when they think of the word “homosexual,” this is absolutely not the truth when it comes to LGBT Serious Business. The way to our hearts (and minds) is not a free Seabreeze and a casual night out. We’re not any different from “normal” human beings. Many of us, in fact, don’t even enjoy drinking.


June 22nd, 2009

Odd that the President has soooo much on his plate with the economy–and therefore can’t find time to address meaningful LGBT issues–but all of a sudden finds time for a cocktail party when we threaten to take away the pink dollar.

David C.

June 22nd, 2009

There has been a good bit of bad blood between LGBT groups and the Obama administration after the DoJ filing of the DOMA Smelt v. US brief. I’m not sure how much of it is justified. Much calmer analysis has appeared and I encourage others to evaluate it.

The essential mission of gay supportive and advocacy groups is best served by those groups finding a consistent message for gay civil rights and staying on that message. That has proven to be a challenge for some time, certainly predating the Obama administration and continuing up until fairly recently.

Like Prop 8, Smelt, galvanized LGBT activists and provoked a backlash against what has been perceived as abandonment by the President who had promised to be a “fierce advocate” on behalf of LGBT people in this country. The wrath spilled over like hot oil onto the entirety of the Democratic party and the DNC. The result appears to be that Democrats and the DNC along with the President have taken notice.

Relationships of any kind occasionally hit rough spots. Sometimes one partner doesn’t get what they think they should be getting, or there is a misunderstanding, or a promise is broken. Sometimes people just need a little time out, or a chance to express what they are really feeling. That’s clearly been the case with the gay community and the Obama administration, the DNC, and Democrats in general. Now it’s time to find a way to patch things up.

That doesn’t mean falling into the trap of co-dependency or abusive relationships. It does mean clear communication, setting boundaries, and making agreements and sticking to them. Sometimes a little social lubricant needs to be applied, and a low-key party with the right players present might help smooth the process of getting back together again.

Now that a bit of the passion and heat of the moment has passed, it would be helpful to start the process of clearly articulating what is needed to put the relationship between the LGBT community and the President and his party back on a sustainable program to advance gay civil rights. If it takes a little schmoozing to work through that, then I’m all for it.

David C.

June 23rd, 2009

BTW, I just read Jim Burroway’s analysis. First rate and another perspective worth evaluating in the process of forming an opinion about the whole DoJ Smelt debacle.

We need to think strategically and stop being quite so reactionary.

Dave Hughes

June 23rd, 2009

Let’s not be so quick to dismiss or criticize this. The reality of the business, political, and social world, is that relationship building usually takes places in venues such as this. Deals are made on the golf course, sales are enabled over expensive lunches, and networks are built at cocktail parties. Maybe this isn’t how it should be in the ideal world, but it’s how it is in the real world.

If this enables the White House people to get to know our leaders better as people and learn about us and our concerns in a more relaxed, informal setting, then I’m all for it. I see this as a bridge-building opportunity.

Do you think the Bush administration would have invited the gays over for a cocktail party under any circumstances? I think not.

Yes, it’s possible that their motivation is to schmooze us into submission. I think (or at least hope) that our leaders aren’t that gullible. And I suspect that these days, smarting from the DOMA brief and overall inaction, we are being pretty quick to view everything that happens with the suspicion of ill intent.

The journey to progress and equality travels down many paths.

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