The False Hopes of Gay America

Barack Obama’s team just announced, unequivocally, that he will repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy enacted by Bill Clinton to allow (and in fact force) gays in the military to hide their sexuality.

This is good news for much of the gay community, which seems to believe whole-heartedly that it has a new best friend in Barack Obama. They campaigned for him, they helped elect him, they will take part in his inauguration, and they believe they have some payback coming their way in very short time.

But why they think this is somewhat of a mystery. True, Obama attempted to make peace with many angry gays who disapproved of the selection of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation by announcing Gene Robinson — an openly gay Episcopal bishop — would also give an invocation.

And true, he invited, for the first time ever, a gay and lesbian marching band to take part in the inaugural parade.

But these acts are merely ceremonial. They are political and public relations efforts that are, frankly, easy and relatively safe. The inauguration, after all, is a party. And who’s going to take issue with party plans?

Obama has stated outright that, like Pastor Rick Warren, he does not support gay marriage. Further, Barack Obama, as we heard ad nauseam during the election, is a church-going Christian. And we saw how black, church-going Christians voted on Proposition 8 in California — they, like Latino, church-going Christians, voted overwhelmingly in favor of it.

Yet, the optimism of the gay community is palpable. Gay activists have organized inauguration events to celebrate a new era of inclusiveness, and many admitted to me on the record they wouldn’t have had John McCain been elected. Kirsten Burgard, whose group The People’s Inaugural is organizing the LGBT “Gayla” during inauguration, said they’d likely have sat this one out. “We would have planned a trip abroad…or at least to Alaska.” Hypothetical plans — facetious though they may be — to retreat to Sarah Palin’s home state make the irony as palpable as the optimism, especially when one considers that Palin supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage — and McCain does not.

A number of my gay friends have described Obama’s election and inauguration as a significant moment for gay rights in particular. When asked why, though, they don’t point to specific legislative acts he has supported or will support — they say simply that his campaign of hope and change signals a new dawn for a gay America that was frustrated by a Republican administration. (The fact that Vice President Cheney has a gay daughter, apparently, did nothing to assuage their hostility toward the Bush administration.)

It’s clear that Obama is viewed as an ally to gay America simply because he is a Democrat, and perhaps because he is a minority, but not because he is substantively an advocate for gay concerns. If platitudes and campaign slogans are all they have, gay America is in for a rude awakening.

Barack Obama could get the chance to make Supreme Court appointments in his first term, but any hopes the gay community has that he will appoint a far-left judge are overly sanguine. All evidence thus far is that he is a pleaser, first, and will likely continue to make safe choices that do not anger the majority or speak only to activist groups. Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Rick Warren are proof of that. Meeting with conservative commentators like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer is further indication that he cares deeply what the Right thinks of him. He has constituents in the pews to please as well — evangelicals voted for Obama in numbers we have never seen before.

Further, there are whispers in the gay community that Obama doesn’t really understand gay rights at all, and it’s not just because of Rick Warren. Some gays believe “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be good policy, insisting it’s kept them safe in the testosterone-driven military.

Just like Obama campaigned on a promise to close Gitmo, and has now realized just how complicated and controversial that move would be, any tacit promises he made to gay America during his campaign will likewise come slowly and hesitantly, if at all. Sorry to rain on gay America’s parade, but Barack Obama so far is pretending to govern from the center-right, and may continue to do so.