Bill Clinton reached out to America’s homosexual community. Then, as president, he refused to let gays in uniform come out of the closet, and he signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) that denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages and supports states that ignore such marriages, too.
Barack Obama has reached out to gays as well. But in five months as president he has not lifted a finger to rescind President Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. And his Justice Department just filed a federal court brief in support of DoMA — a brief that cites long-ago cases involving incestuous and adolescent spouses to justify the law’s rejection of same-sex marriage.
George W. Bush never pretended to be a fan of the gay-rights movement. He said he favored an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage once and for all. Then again, the country’s first same-sex marriages occurred on President Dubya’s watch, and he never did anything other than talk about it. No harm, no foul.
The gay community finally is realizing that it can live with its opponents, but it needs to be more careful about choosing its friends. Outraged in general by the new president’s indifference and in particular by the Justice Department brief, some gay activists have called for a boycott of a June 25 fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at which Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to appear.
To calm the waters and comfort his party’s gay backers, this week President Obama signed, with much fanfare, a memorandum offering access to long-term care insurance to domestic partners of federal employees, and allowing federal workers to use sick days to care for unrelated members of their households. The president pronounced this a “historic step.” If Neil Armstrong’s historic step was small, Obama’s was microscopic.
Obama, like Clinton before him, is practicing the art of political triangulation against a constituency that he presumes is not going to defect. When Clinton signed DoMA in 1996, his alternative — a veto — would have handed Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole a political bludgeon to use against Clinton in that year’s campaign. Clinton chose instead to let Congress whack gay couples, which at that time were fighting to find a single U.S. jurisdiction that would allow them to wed.
In last year’s campaign Obama opposed same-sex marriage while endorsing the marriage-in-all-but-in-name approach of “civil unions.” Obama straddled the issue because, while gays are reliably Democratic, many of his other supporters — including much of the African-American community — do not look kindly on gay marriages.
One irony of last year’s race is that the huge minority turnout Obama elicited may have doomed, at least for now, same-sex marriage in California. Obama won the state handily, while Proposition 8, which revoked a court decision that had allowed 18,000 gay Californian couples to marry in eight months, was narrowly approved. Obama’s minority backers may well have provided the margin in favor of Proposition 8.
The White House spin machine has tried to portray the administration as a victim of circumstances. Administration allies argue in defense of the Justice Department’s legal brief that the executive branch must defend existing statutes. Congress, they add, must act before the president can honor his campaign pledge to trash “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Neither point stands up. An executive is not required to defend an indefensible law, and certainly not to adopt the hard-line positions in support of DoMA that the Justice brief presents. Among those positions: The lower court is bound by a 1972 Supreme Court ruling holding that gays do not have a right to marry. Nothing significant has changed, the Department of Justice argues, notwithstanding that gay marriage has at one time or another been approved in seven U.S. states and at least a half-dozen foreign countries.
In contrast to Obama’s position that he is forced to defend a law he says he does not like, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has said he will not support Proposition 8 against a federal court challenge.
Likewise, the commander-in-chief has refused to intervene to prevent members of the military from being discharged after acknowledging their homosexuality. He also chooses to defer to Congress on ending the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy rather than exercise his constitutional authority over the armed forces. This contrasts with Obama’s approach in other areas, such as replacing corporate managers and subordinating the contractual rights of creditors, where the president has not seemed nearly as concerned with the limits of executive power.
The decades-long effort by gays and lesbians to be recognized and accepted in secular society is the great civil rights struggle of our era. Gay marriage is here, today, in tens of thousands of American households. The federal government’s refusal under DoMA to recognize those marriages is indefensible.
Yet gay citizens once again see their so-called friends being quick to sacrifice gay rights for political expediency.
Years from now, no doubt, we will visit the presidential library of former President Obama and view exhibits about how he supported, even embodied, the dream of civil rights for all. By then gay marriage will be an accepted part of American life, and the Obama museum will tell us how he really supported equal rights all along.
Right now, however, the gay community could use some friendlier friends.