When Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of the United States, queer people all across America cheered. We had good reason to celebrate. After all, he had the most far-reaching, pro-GLBT agenda of any presidential candidate in U.S. history: repeal DOMA, end “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” pass hate crimes legislation, lift the HIV travel ban, and increase funding for AIDS research. Not withstanding his opposition to marriage equality, candidate Obama was a strong ally for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender folks. Time and again, he included us—“gay America and straight America”—in his bold vision of a new “United States of America.” He talked to us and he talked about us, even in places where issues of gender and sexuality were historically taboo. His rhetoric and record all pointed to the same conclusion: we would have a strong champion in the White House.
When it comes to high hopes and big dreams, president Obama has a lot in common with queer folks: the last year has been a mixed bag. The 2008 election was an opportunity for many of us to breathe a collective sigh of relief after eight years of assaults on progressive values and GLBT people, who were often used as scapegoats to justify the worst kind of policies, both foreign and domestic. But the satisfaction of this historic election also came with a sting—passage of anti-gay ballot initiatives in Arkansas, Florida, Arizona, and California. Since then, when it comes to everything from equal rights to health care reform, we have had to confront the reality that change is slow going, especially in a country whose worst impulses—fear and ignorance and prejudice—still compete aggressively with the better angels of our nature. We must remember that after eight years of failed Bush policies, there’s a lot of work to do simply to restore sanity to our political culture. We cannot move forward until we stop moving backward. As Tom Perez, Obama’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, recently told me, “We have to complete the process of restoration before we can even begin the work of transformation.”
When it comes to full GLBT equality, transformation is still a long way off. Indeed, there is rising frustration within our ranks over President Obama’s failure to expend genuine political capital on issues important to our community. People often ask me whether I’m disappointed with the president. This is a difficult question to answer. As a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council, I’m proud to have joined his campaign early on (July 2007), and I’m happy that he’s the president—and not only because he isn’t George W. Bush, but because he’s smart, strong, compassionate, and competent. I still have high hopes for the president and for the kind of country, and world, he wants to create. But I too am frustrated with the slow pace of change on our issues. As a historian, I’m well aware that social transformation is not a swift or easy endeavor. After all, many disfranchised groups have struggled for decades, even centuries, to become full and equal citizens. As the first black president, Obama has a keen perspective on the complicated relationship between struggle and progress.
So what progress has been made? According to the Victory Fund, Obama is on pace to make a record number of appointments of openly GLBT people, to date, nearly 100 to key positions in the White House and the Departments of Labor, Justice, Education, and Commerce. And there have been other important milestones. In February 2009, at the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, the U.S. delegation reversed its Bush-era opposition to a U.N. statement calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide. In October, in response to the rising tide of protest that accompanied the National Equality March, Obama lifted America’s 22-year travel and immigration ban for people with HIV. He also signed the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, an expanded federal hate crimes law that now protects people from violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It is unfortunate, however, that in order to ensure its passage, this measure had to be attached to a $680 billion defense authorization bill. Personally, I worry about such tortured bargains, the way the GLBT community is too often forced to compromise its progressive principles—in this case, to support war as we seek equality—just to ensure a measure of political progress.
Despite these clear signs of progress, President Obama has not been the strong champion for GLBT equality that he promised he would be. Truth be told, federal appointments can often fly under the radar screen; so, too, with the HIV travel ban. As important as it was to pass the Shepard-Byrd Act, the struggle to expand federal hate crimes statutes long predates the Obama Presidency. The Durban Conference reversal was largely symbolic, an attempt to avoid international embarrassment by standing with nations that have more enlightened GLBT policies. But the president and the Democrats in Congress have so far been unwilling to stand with us on most matters of substance when it comes to the struggle for full equality. DOMA and “Don’t ask, don’t tell” are still the law of the land. It is still legal for employers, insurance companies, adoption agencies, and even the IRS to discriminate against us. And while important progress has been made on same-sex marriage and civil unions—most recently, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia—we have also experienced a series of setbacks in California, Maine, New York, and other states.
To be fair, never before in American history has a president come into office having inherited two wars and a failed economy. Given this reality, many people—including the president himself—have asked us to be more patient. After all, with two wars, a recession, a health care crisis, and a planet in peril, GLBT equality is not the highest political priority. I’ve had close friends tell me that I was being “unreasonable” when I attended the National Equality March last October to demand that the president and Congress work harder on behalf of our rights. One friend even had the audacity to tell me, just two days after my partner and I got engaged, that “health care reform is more important than gay marriage.” But equality is not limited to “gay marriage,” and the rights of citizenship at stake are not some abstract “issue” separate from the major political concerns of the day. GLBT equality is about the fact that Arabic translators have been fired during a time of war in the Middle East. It’s about the fact that gay and lesbian citizens are discriminated against in tax policies, insurance plans, and adoption laws, and the fact that lifelong partners are routinely barred from end-of-life decision-making. It’s about the fact that non-gender conforming youths are neither “safe” nor “healthy” in our public schools, and are far more likely to be homeless or commit suicide. It’s about the fact that our government not only fails to protect our rights, but also perpetuates discrimination against us.
Barack Obama did not invent hope. He’s just the most recent American politician to use hope to inspire and energize the nation. But queer people have our own tradition of hope. From Walt Whitman to Bayard Rustin, we too are optimists. In the late 1970’s, amid the first wave of gay liberation, Harvey Milk appealed directly to the better angels of our nature: “And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right.” For all his audacity, Milk also understood that hope was not enough. He understood that hope must be paired with outrage and organizing. Liberation will not be handed to us. We must demand it, and work for it, and we must not stop until all of us—gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, men and women—reach the promised land. President Obama and his party have a historic opportunity to be on the right side of history where GLBT equality is concerned. While we continue to hope, let’s also demand that our political leaders keep the promises they have made to us.
Timothy Patrick McCarthy, author of Protest Nation: Words That Inspired A Century of American Radicalism, is a lecturer and director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.