By Marc Pitzke
Not even the rain kept them away. First, there was only a handful, then a few dozen, and finally thousands. They marched from New York's West Village through the traffic to Union Square, chanting. Many carried posters and banners many with slogans like "Civil rights now," "Equality for all families" and "No tolerance for intolerance."
However, one banner showed a portrait of US President Barack Obama as a two-headed Janus figure. The left head was spouting Obama's famous 2008 campaign slogan, "Yes we can." But the right head was saying: "No we can't."
The recent march through Manhattan was officially directed against the refusal of the Supreme Court of California to annul the Proposition 8 referendum banning same-sex marriage. But many of the protesters -- who were mainly gay men and lesbians -- had another enemy in mind: Obama.
Obama's perceived hypocrisy makes the protestors almost more livid than Proposition 8 itself. In their opinion, Obama has chickened out of openly taking a stance on the latest act of the eternal American culture war surrounding gay marriage -- contrary to the hopes of gay Americans. "Where's Obama?" asks Lisa Ackerman, a lawyer who is marching through the rain with her girlfriend. "His silence speaks volumes."
Indeed, where is Obama? It's a question which is being posed increasingly often by gays and lesbians in the US. Despite their initial skepticism, they almost exclusively supported Obama in the presidential race once Hillary Clinton had been eliminated. In return, Obama had said he would be their "fierce advocate" and promised among other things to scrap the notorious Pentagon "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the US military and to help pave the way to the right to same-sex marriage.
But American gays and lesbians are still waiting in vain for Obama to fulfill his election promises. While the US in general is clearly heading in the direction of a relaxation of homophobic policies, the White House is shying away from the issue. Even worse, on some issues, it has actually put new stumbling blocks in the way of gay rights.
'Where Is Our New Deal?'
The Supreme Court's decision was just the latest in a series of incidents that have turned the American gay lobby against the president. As well as DADT (as the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is commonly known) and gay marriage, gay activists are frustrated by slow progress in the fight against AIDS and the ban on visas and green cards for people infected with HIV. For some, these cases confirm the doubts they already had about Obama when he asked the pastor Rick Warren -- who opposes gay marriage -- to give the invocation at his inauguration.
"Where's our fierce advocate?" wrote Richard Socarides, who advised former President Bill Clinton on gay issues, recently in the Washington Post. "Across a broad spectrum of issues -- including women's rights, stem cell research and relations with Cuba -- the Obama administration has shown a willingness to exploit this change moment to bring about dramatic reform. So why not on gay rights? Where is our New Deal?"
Admittedly Obama did issue a presidential proclamation declaring June "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month," a move applauded as a "nice start" by gay activist David Mixner on his blog. But many activists feel that Obama is lagging behind when it comes to concrete commitments.
With his reticence, Obama is bucking the national trend. The struggle for equality for homosexuals has become an "almost-inevitable march," said former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who outed himself and resigned from office in 2004, in an interview with the New York Times Magazine. Gay marriage has now been recognized in six states, and most activists see the California referendum as just a temporary setback.
"This is a civil rights moment," Evan Wolfson, executive director of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, told Frank Rich, the New York Times' openly gay star columnist. "And Obama has not yet risen to it." Wolfson compares the situation with 1963, when the black civil rights movement was stagnating. The breakthrough, he said, only came when President Lyndon B. Johnson was galvanized into action. The Democrats lack "a towering national figure to make the moral case" for full gay civil rights, Wolfson said, and Obama hasn't shown any signs so far of wanting to follow Johnson's example.
Many gays do not want to accept Obama's heel-dragging. "How much longer do we give him the benefit of the doubt on LGBT issues and when do we speak strongly out?" asks Mixner on his blog. The legendary activist Cleve Jones, who conceived the world-famous AIDS Memorial Quilt, called for lesbians and gays to march on Washington on Oct. 11, where they would gather at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King's legendary "I Have A Dream" speech.
Increasing Support for Gays in the Military
"Your time is up, Mr. President," says New York stylist Stephen Dimmick. "Your silence in response to the deafening calls of the gay community is a disgrace." Dimmick is reminded of the silence of other US presidents: Ronald Reagan did not use the word AIDS until 1987, by which point more than 20,000 Americans had already died of the disease.
In private, Obama has asked for patience. In May, he invited representatives of prominent gay groups to the White House. Admittedly he did not receive them himself, but White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina discussed "legislative strategies" with them.
According to the news Web site Politico, one activist made the urgency of the matter clear to Messina at a recent fundraising gala in Los Angeles where Obama was speaking -- he confronted Messina in the bathroom of the Beverly Hills Hilton. Meanwhile, at a rally across the street, a group was protesting on behalf of Dan Choi, an Arabic-speaking army linguist who was about to be discharged from the US military because of his homosexuality.
The senselessness of the military kicking out a soldier whose much-needed skills are in short supply has not escaped the American public. A recent Gallup poll found that almost 70 percent of Americans are in favor of military service by openly gay men and lesbians, and even a majority of conservatives -- 58 percent -- do not oppose openly homosexual soldiers serving in the military.
Obama has said that he wants to eventually abolish the "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- but only, according to Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt, "in a sensible way that strengthens our armed forces and our national security." LaBolt added: "Until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system."
Rachel Maddow, an openly lesbian anchor on the cable channel MSNBC, is not satisfied with that stance. On her show she recently showed a video clip from the election campaign in which Obama promised to repeal DADT, saying: "All that is required is leadership."
The fronts in the debate are no longer split along party lines, but rather by generation. In a CBS poll in April, 42 percent supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, 9 percent more than in March -- and nearly twice as many as in 2004. Among under-40s -- the so-called "Obama generation" -- support was at 57 percent.
Even ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian, has nothing against gay marriage and says so publicly -- which makes him more progressive on the issue than Obama. And the most dramatic attempt yet to challenge the ban on gay marriage in the Supreme Court is an alliance of two former political arch-enemies: Star lawyer Ted Olsen, who represented George W. Bush in the legal dispute over the contested 2000 presidential election, and his former rival David Boies, who represented Al Gore. "This isn't a Republican or a Democrat issue," Olson told CNN talk show host Larry King.
But the White House apparently wants to first tackle some of the "smaller" issues which concern the gay community, such as the tightening of laws against hate crimes and ending the ban on visas, green cards and naturalization for people who are HIV positive, which has been in place since the Reagan era.
But for many people, that is simply not enough. Obama is "a coward, a bigot and a pathological liar," railed James Pietrangelo, the former soldier whose appeal the Supreme Court refused to hear, in an interview with Time magazine.
Pietrangelo said Obama had spent more time choosing and playing with his dog Bo than working for gay rights since taking office. "If there were millions of black people as second-class citizens, or millions of Jews or Irish, he would have acted immediately."
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