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I’ve Changed My Mind

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

Jim Burroway

June 24th, 2009

About the White House cocktail party on June 29:

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…

The seeds for my turnaround were planted when I finished that sentence:

…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.

I’ve thought a lot about that since then and here’s the deal. We’ve been telling everyone we can think of about the importance of being out and being visible to our families, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers —  everywhere and to everyone. The power of our presence as real live human beings rather than ill-informed stereotypes has made a huge difference in what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past few years. It seems to me that wherever there is an opportunity to make our presence known in the flesh, we should take that opportunity and run with it.

And when that opportunity extends to meeting with the President of the United States, it becomes less an opportunity and more an obligation. Presidents have a tendency to become ensconced in a bubble surrounded by like-minded aides and sycophants. As much as I believe this President is trying to keep that from happening, it’s just a natural consequence of the office. He has obviously been told by those around him that our concerns can wait, that we’re just happy he’s there, and we’ll hang in there no matter what. If nobody’s there to tell him otherwise, how is he to know any different?

True, he can turn on television and watch the talking heads, but I think we all know how well television reflects real life. Not very well at all. And if we’ve learned not to believe everything we see on television, I’m sure the President has learned that too.

No, we’ve been talking about the importance of person-to-person conversations and sharing of our lives with others. Why is it now suddenly acceptable to say that we will refuse to do so with the President?

There appears to be three main arguments against attending the White House cocktail party. The first argument is this: that those who will attend will be co-opted into a White House photo-op of Obama surrounded by His Friendly Gays. That could happen, but I doubt it. Remember all those cocktail parties that Obama threw to try to open up dialog with House and Senate Republicans? Do you remember many photographs from those events?

The second argument actually seems to run counter to the first, that because the cocktail party hasn’t been publicly announced, it’s signaling that Obama doesn’t want to be too public with His Friendly Gays. “Why the big secret?” they ask. But if it’s a big secret, then it can’t be much of a photo-op, and if it’s a photo-op, then it can’t be much of a secret. What’s the point of being surrounded by His Friendly Gays if he’s not going to show them off? But the real answer to why it hasn’t been publicly announced may be found in precedent: The previous cocktail parties weren’t big public productions either. We only started to learn about them after they occurred.

The third argument concerns His Friendly Gays themselves, and builds on the much-hated image of “A-Gays” drinking and schmoozing and not getting much done. That’s a hard image to knock down, but we do have to remember that in a town like Washington, D.C., relationships are formed and messages put across over exactly these kinds of activities. This is true in D.C. much moreso than in anywhere else, where these events are typically little more than non-work social hours.

And as for His Friendly Gays, it appears the gathering will be much broader than that. Some of those invited include some of the administration’s harsher critics on LGBT issues. One of those who will be there is Lt. Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, who is about to be fired from the Air Force for being gay. He’ll be there as a guest of the Servicemember’s Legal Defense Network. The invite list isn’t limited to those from inside the Beltway, which is exactly what’s needed to punch through the Presidential bubble. They aren’t the get-along-to-go-along usual suspects, although I’m sure some of them will be there also

And besides all that, there this final point: this is the President of the United States, in capital letters. When the President calls, you go. If you have access, use it. I think Mike Rogers — and no one is going to call him a get-along slouch — put it best:

We have had 8 years of “yes men” in the White House with no dissent. No one is suggesting that people should bow before the president, but this is what we wanted, ACCESS. THIS IS PART OF THE ACCESS.

Call me SHOCKED, but I did not get invited to the Bush White House. If I was, I think I would have said the same thing. When the President of the United States says “hey come on by,” you go. Invitations to the Oval Office or the White House are not supposed to be used to get up in the President’s face, it’s the time to compellingly present your case.

I wasn’t invited either. But it wasn’t just a couple of hours after I posted my first thoughts that I began to think differently about it. Yes, if someone from the White House were to call me and invite me to get on a plane bound for Washington to meet with the President of the United States, I’d scape my jaw off the floor and go. It’s not a cool invite to the hottest party in town. It’s a call to duty as a citizen. To not take up that call is to be less of a citizen. And when we are fighting for our full rights as citizens, we should exercise our duty as citizens wherever we’re called. And now that we are given access, we either use it or squander it. Seems the choice there is pretty simple.

Comments

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Yeek
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

“When the president calls, you go.” What a stupid, unthinking, obsequious comment to make.

The precise reason the president should be shunned is because “NOBODY says no to the PRESIDENT!” Nobody expects it, and everyone will notice it. He’s used to people kowtowing and begging and scraping before him no matter how he has treated them. There’s no better message to deflate an ego than to say “you’re no longer worth my time.” What this man needs is shame and embarrassment, not reasoned dialogue.

We didn’t get ANY results from all that reasoned dialogue we had with the president and his staff during his candidacy. The White House only started changing their tune when we stopped talking to the president and started talking to the public. Humiliation works, especially on those who value propriety and process.

The only thing attending this event will do is show that we are the same as all those House and Senate republicans: we’re willing to say one thing and then debase ourselves just a little bit to “get in.”

Nobody will notice when the gays show up to the party as summoned. Everyone will notice if they just walk away, and just maybe they might actually think we mean what we’ve been saying for the last two years.

Scott
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

A successful approach to get our issues on the table and passed is to speak loudly and often.

The president needs to be told that LGBT americans are unhappy with his lack of action on issues and outright dehumanizing rhetoric. He needs to hear this in many different ways–the collapse of a fundraiser is great; guest after guest telling him directly that he is not doing enough at a cocktail party is also good. Writing him letters and calling is good.

Congress needs to be informed that we are watching them too. Just as much attention should be given to them. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. I hope others will also send their congresscritters letters telling them to get moving on these issues.

Yeek
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

Furthermore – it’s ridiculous to argue that this “party” doesn’t have a PR angle to it because it hasn’t been “publicly announced.” Somehow, everyone still knows about it, and everyone’s talking about it. It’s called ‘creative leaking.’

Access to the president would be wonderful. Is that what this is?

Has there been any format laid out? Will he answer questions? Will the president be approachable or will he walk in, give a speech, and walk out? These are the questions that must be answered IN ADVANCE before we can take his word for it that this is truly access and not a chance for him to pull a little spin. “See? I actually MET with them.”

Quite frankly, there is far too much potential for this event to be finessed into an opportunity for the President to breeze through and not have to field a single question. A press conference with the gay media (no cocktails, no bullshit) would be far, far more productive and less sketchy than this nebulous event.

And Jim, all the crap about “it’s a call to duty as a citizen” is just such garbage. You make it sound like only Benedict Arnold would decline this invitation. Our duty as citizens is to follow a direct ORDER of the president – it is not “a duty” to break bread with him or accept an invitation to a party. Some might think we have a duty to our self-respect, our skeptical virtue, and our wronged community that outweighs any obligation to attend a social event of amorphous purpose and value.

Gordie
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

“When the President calls, you go. If you have access, use it.”

In this case however, the President (or the DNC) is charging for access — more like a whore or escort who charges for his/her time. Does the President always charge for his time?

I support the protest. Of course I HAD to vote (and was excited to vote) for Obama over McPalin and will probably have to vote for him again — but I didn’t have to donate to his campaign. Right now, I regret that donation — and am disappointed in his ignoring of LGBT issues. Unless there is some serious movement in his campaign promise for equality, he won’t see another donation from me.

The LGBT community (usually) isn’t as stupid as the general community. We are not fooled by that silly do-nothing paper that grants no real benefits for the community. I hope the protest lights a fire under the asses of Obama’s handlers and lets them know that we will no longer be ignored.

Jim Burroway
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

Gordie, I think you’re confusing the White House invitation with the DNC fundraiser. They are two different events. I wasn’t clear in this post, so I change the first sentence to make clear that I’m referring to the June 29 coctail party. I’m all for refusing to go the the fundraiser.

Keith
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

“When the president calls, you go.”

That’s what the ‘Austin 12′ said when they met with Bush and declared that he was very gay friendly. Log Cabin has also used that strategy as they say “working for change from the inside” in rationalizing their financial and other support of hateful Republicans (including working for extreme homophobes like Tom Tancredo).

Jason D
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

The best argument that Jim makes is being present.
Not going to this event is a lot like not voting, you’re silencing yourself, giving up any chance you might have to make a difference and influence the President.
Dialogue, face to face, is always better than a stern “no thank you”. Having someone right in front of you is hugely different than their list of reasons why they won’t show up.
I don’t think people get it. Jim wasn’t saying “if the king commands you must obey”
It’s more like – if the most powerful man in this country (possibly the world) wants to hear what you have to say — you’re an idiot if you say “no thank you” and as LGBT “leaders” we have an obligation to represent our people and use the opportunity to be both seen and heard.

CPT_Doom
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

I was against anyone going to the cocktail party – mainly because it appears to have been thrown together at the last minute – until I saw Rachel Maddow last night. She interviewed Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, one of the openly gay service members who is fighting his discharge, and it turns out he is attending the party, as the guest of SLDN. I think that is a great strategy and every guest should follow it – go to the party, but bring an openly gay or lesbian service member who has been, or is about to be, discharged to confront the President with their stories.

Timothy Kincaid
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

Keith, please provide support for your assertion that Log Cabin worked for Tom Tancredo.

CPT_Doom, I agree with that strategy. It would be interesting if half the people shaking his hand said, “Hello, Mr. President, why are you firing me?”

Pender
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

No, “access” is NOT what we want. We already have access; it’s the currency the Democrats use to bribe officials at organizations like HRC.

What we want is CHANGE.

Rick
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

Bullsh*t. This is exactly why we don’t trust our leadership. You can’t be missed if you never go away.

Jason D
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

Rick,
by the same logic, you can’t be heard if you don’t show up.

What was that Act Up Slogan from the 80’s? Oh yes, “silence = death”

We have no right to complain when given the opportunity to speak directly to the President, we decline.

Ben
June 24th, 2009 | LINK

Jason D,
The question is, will people really get to speak to the President, or will he waltz in, give a speech and be gone.

The new Obama theme song:
Ooh I love to dance a little sidestep, now they see me now they don’t-
I’ve come and gone and, ooh I love to sweep around the wide step,
cut a little swathe and lead the people on.

Matt
June 25th, 2009 | LINK

Jim,

Just bear in mind that this is the typical Washington M.O. Groups like HRC like cocktail parties because it proves they have access and can provide it to big donors. Best of all, they don’t have to talk policy at these things–that would be impolite.

They get to smile, glad-hand, and have their photos taken with important people. They then post these on-line and in their publications so that those with money can say to themselves–ooh look how important I am–there’s a picture of me shaking hands with the Deputy Assistant Assistant Deputy Secretary of Transportation–the gay guy (or convincing non-attendees to pony up the next time).

Even though this isn’t HRC-planned, it’s still that same inside-the-beltway philosophy that has left us treading water for many years. Unfortunately, it is the same game played all over Washington across the political spectrum and is why a swamp drained remains a swamp.

And I used to be such an idealist…

Yeek
June 25th, 2009 | LINK

It seems we’ve come down to the usual plea we so often hear from the wounded hopeful: ‘He just doesn’t understand. Once he meets us, *really* meets us, once he sees the human faces behind this injustice, the scales will fall from his eyes and he’ll realize the right thing to do. He’ll change.’

I’m paraphrasing, of course. But I think it’s ridiculous to think that the president hasn’t met gay people, hasn’t heard heart-wrenching tales of injustice endured by loving couples, loyal soldiers, etc. etc. He’s been hearing this stuff ever since his candidacy started, and it’s been going on at every strategy meeting since. Given what he has seen, he will not change because he meets a few more veterans face to face (as if the Secret Service will allow that).

I’m just amazed at how credulous people are at believing that this event will be full of one-on-one conversations and hand-shaking and emotional breakthroughs. It won’t. He’ll come in, surrounded by Secret Service. He’ll shake hands with two or three pre-selected individuals. He will give a brief speech about how he wants to do things better. And then he’ll leave.

And all the guests who want to believe they haven’t just been had will tell us that this was real, meaningful access, because, you know, he looked so sincere and really listened.

Hope your publicized change of heart got you that invite, Jim.

Jim Burroway
June 25th, 2009 | LINK

Yeek, I haven’t gotten an invite and don’t expect one. I understand though that those invited are allowed to bring a guest. So if by some miracle I should be invited, I’ll be happy to bring you along.

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