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State of the Union: time to deliver on LGBT rights & “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address and the ensuing response by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, I was struck by the near absence of substantive policy differences. It seems the magnitude of our nation’s problems – both foreign and domestic – have left little room in the policy sauna to sweat the small stuff. And even less for Gingrich-esque visionaries. Accordingly, despite a time of unprecedented partisan rancor, the nation listened to two men advance essentially the same ideas on fiscal policy, energy, and national security. The only real differences were the timbre of the vague platitudes and the direction of the thinly disguised barbs.

In fact, there were only two real contrasts – the first, and most obvious, being health care reform, which we will leave aside for the moment. After ignoring the previous administration’s excellent tutorial on party discipline, the Democrats have screwed this particular pooch to the point where all that remains is for it to slowly bleed out from its rectal hemorrhages.

The second was mostly unspoken – McDonnell didn’t address it, and the President gave the subject a mere 38 words:

This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama pledged to be a “fierce advocate” for LGBT rights. Ending the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy (along with a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act) was one of his more visible campaign promises. During Obama’s transition, press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked if the President would “get rid of” DADT, as he had the right to do by executive order. Gibbs’ reply: “you don’t hear politicians give a one-word answer much, but it’s yes.”

One year later, DADT is still the law of the land, and the democrats have done absolutely nothing on DOMA. In addition, the Obama administration is actively fighting an order from federal circuit judge Alex Kozinski to provide equal benefits to court employees.

While some gay rights advocates are encouraged that the President has finally set a time-frame for action on DADT, the time-frame given is not one for the end of the policy, but rather for beginning to “work with” Congress on the issue. And while it is true a permanent end to DADT will require Congress to repeal the statute, President Obama has complete authority as commander in chief to issue a stop-loss order suspending its implementation.

The President refuses to do this on the grounds that the administration can’t just suspend the enforcement of laws it doesn’t like. However, there is ample legal precedent for doing so – in fact, just a few months ago the administration suspended enforcement of the “widow’s penalty” (deporting foreign nationals when their American spouses die) so that Congress would have time to “fix the law.”

And while I am disappointed with Obama’s stance – particularly his willingness to fight Judge Kozinski – I understand. Tackling gay rights is a messy business. It gets all them “real ‘merikuns” up in your face. And if they’re repressed, closeted real ‘merikuns, they might get up somewhere even less pleasant. So why make this divisive, unpleasant, messy issue a major part of your campaign? The answer is, as they say in campaign circles, the “gay ATM.”

The Democratic party makes up approximately 35 percent of the American populace, and the LGBT community around five percent. Given that most LGBT folks are Democrats and are, on average, much more politically active (and therefore likely to donate), queers make up a sizeable chunk of the party’s human and financial capital. And this doesn’t even count the sizeable number of straight allies who, like myself, find codified discrimination repugnant and for whom marriage equality is an absolute moral imperative. Taking us all together, it is probably an understatement to say that individuals with a personal stake in LGBT equality contribute a third of the party’s resources.

The Dems need our time, our effort, our money. But it’s messy and unpleasant to actually deliver the goods. So they keep on making promises, and we keep letting them make withdrawals. After all, what are we going to do, vote for Sarah Palin?

But as 2009 dragged on, and the administration’s inaction continued, more and more LGBT activists (Dan Savage chief among them) suggested we shut down the gay ATM until we start seeing results. And after last night’s State of the Union, I have to agree, at least in part. We haven’t gotten anything of substance from Obama and the Democrats in over a year. And with his speech last night, Obama deftly pulled the plug on his trademark issue – hope.

I can hear the protests already. “Shut down the gay ATM, and the Democrats will lose, and things will be even worse off than they are now.” First off, that’s not really true. Change doesn’t happen because of politicians. Change happens because society demands it. In this vein, we have to remember that the greatest advances in gay rights happened under George W. Bush. When the dear old coke-head took office, civil unions didn’t exist, and it was illegal to be gay in 14 states. When he left office, half the country had civil unions or domestic partnerships, and we had full marriage equality in five states.

Secondly, this treats the situation as an either/or. Either we donate to the Democrats in exchange for paying lip service (and not the good kind) to our issues. Or we sit at home and do nothing. But that’s not really the choice we have – there are more effective ways to spend our time and money.

Barack Obama alone raised nearly $700 million during the 2008 campaign. Without the gay ATM, John McCain might’ve won a couple more states. But just think about what Lambda Legal, GLAAD, Equality California, or the American Foundation for Equal Rights could do with $200 million.

The late Mother Teresa once said that her ministry required her to “give until it hurts.” And in 2008, we in the LGBT equality movement did her one better. We gave until we bled. And we must keep bleeding. Our conscience demands no less. As for you, Barack, I’m still going to vote for you in 2012 (unless of course the tea-baggers start using ganja tea and nominate Barney Frank), but after tonight, I’m giving my ATM card and pin to Lambda Legal.

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