Before I begin this post, I suggest to that you watch Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Day speech to the United Nations in Geneva on December 6, 2011. (Transcript here.)
The die is cast.
LGBT activists have had an often tense relationship with the Obama Administration dating back to before his inauguration. Truth be told, there is some justification for the activists’ mistrust. When handed a friendly Congress, the only friendly Congress this or any other Democratic Administration will have for at least another generation, the Obama Administration spent no political capital whatsoever on gay rights legislation. Congress passed one law, the Matthew Shepard Act, and that came via the back door, attached as a rider to a National Defense Authorization Bill. Furthermore, the Matthew Shepard Act came entirely from Congressional Democrats, and there were even rumors (unfounded rumors I hasten to add) that the White House was displeased that Congressional Democrats got the law passed.
The truth is that the Matthew Shepard Act, the first pro-LGBT legislation ever passed by the federal government, was the very least of what Congress could have done. Far more important legislation which include the repeals of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, benefits for the same-sex partners of federal employees, and immigration reform recognizing same-sex marriages were never touched upon for better part of two years. Coupled with Obama’s disappointing public stance on same-sex marriage (not for it, a state issue, he’s “evolving”), LGBT activists began to despair, and that despair turned to rage.
Then came the 2010 elections and the understanding that no pro-LGBT legislation would make it through Congress. There came real pressure to overturn DADT before the Republicans took over the House. Lo and behold, after furious 11th hour maneuvering, DADT was finally overturned, consigned to the dustbin of history. The military is now totally integrated, and there are no problems. (There are those however, who cannot let it go.)
Since the end of DADT nothing much has happened, or that is how the narrative goes. It is not exactly accurate, because while the Congressional statute is the strongest form of legislation there are other ways to make law. The President is the leader of the country and the nominal head of his party, but the truth is that Representatives and Senators do not answer to him; he is not their boss. This is especially true for Democrats who are harder to keep in line than Republicans because there is a larger ideological variety among members (that Nancy Pelosi did such a good job of it for four years is why she was such an effective leader). The President is the boss of the Executive Branch alone.
That is not insignificant power. The Congressional statute is far stronger because President-made law (Executive Orders, memos, etc.) can change from administration to administration depending on the man in charge, or even if the President were to change his mind. Nevertheless, unlike a statute, which requires Congress to act– and which is becoming less and less likely to get passed as Congress falls further and further into the mire–President-made law is immediate, effective, and depends upon only one person. And the Executive Branch, in essence the entirety of the administrative state, affects our day-to-day lives and sometimes the lives of people around the world, Presidential orders are extremely important.
It is a power that the Obama Administration has put to great effect with regard to LGBT rights. Some of his orders have been merely symbolic, such as including same-sex families in the White House Easter Egg Roll, or recognizing June as LGBT Pride Month. Other orders have had real significance: (1) all hospitals that accept Medicare and Medicaid (which is almost all if not all of them) to allow same-sex partners the same visitation and proxy rights that straight couples have; and (2) an end to the US travel ban of people infected with HIV. And then there was one extremely momentous order, the President’s command to the Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court because the Administration’s position is that DOMA is unconstitutional. As a personal matter, the President has made anti-bullying a priority of his Administration; he even personally recorded an It Gets Better video.
That was just inside the United States. Another thing which the Obama Administration did, and which did not get nearly as much credit as it deserved, was leading (and winning) the fight which led the United Nations to adopt a resolution applying human rights protections and principles to sexual orientation and gender identity. There was some major behind-the-scenes drama to produce what at the time seemed like merely symbolically significant window dressing.
Yesterday came the double-whammy from the Obama Administration following up on its UN victory. First the President sent a memo out instructing the federal agencies to weigh how nations treat their LGBT population in the decision on how to leverage foreign aid. It’s not altogether clear what the Administration will do. There are mixed messages, none of which are as clear as UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s unambiguous statement about withholding aid from nations that criminalize same-sex relationships and activity.
Hours after the memo was released, Secretary Clinton gave what may well be the most important speech in LGBT history, which I included at the top of this post. “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.” While admitting that the US is far from perfect when it comes to LGBT equality, Clinton made clear that she and the Obama Administration as a whole are strong allies of LGBT populations around the world, especially in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana–places where LGBT people are imprisoned, tortured, and even executed for the crime of existing. (The State Department has been very vocal of late about its LGBT concerns, going so far as to condemn a severely draconian anti-gay law proposed in St. Petersburg. This was before the recent election showed up Russia to be the Potemkin democracy we all knew it to be.) Secretary Clinton described affirmative (non-punitive) steps that the US will take to help. Her speech was greeted by a standing ovation. Those at whom her remarks were aimed left. The message was clear; the United States considers LGBT discrimination as bad as any other kind of discrimination.
No doubt President Obama and Secretary Clinton offer a sincere if somewhat nebulous vision. Secretary Clinton detailed a 3 million dollars global fund to help LGBT populations around the world. Frankly, that is not a lot of money. But it is something. Symbolically it is very important, and one suspects (hopes?) that this is just the beginning. It’s easy enough to accuse the US and the UK of imperialist behavior, which no doubt the guilty nations are doing, but all money comes with strings. If those nations don’t want the money, no one is forcing them to accept it. If you want to hear the song, you have to pay the piper.
Immediately afterwards, the usual suspects ranted and raved about the Obama’s memo and Clinton’s speech. And the loudest criticism came from the Republican candidates for President. (As though the US had never intervened with another country’s internal politics before.) Rick Perry and Rick Santorum in particular have taken great pains to voice their displeasure, or in reality pander to the evangelical right. Santorum–who only seems to be noticed by an LGBT press that despises him–accused Obama of “promoting special rights for gays” as though the right to not be tortured, imprisoned, or executed is a special right.
It’s easy enough to dismiss Santorum, Perry, and the rest as bigots, which they no doubt are (Santorum in particular although he seems not to understand why gay people hate him so much), but it is important to understand that they are trying to appeal to an audience of conservative, evangelical Christians who hate gay people, want to roll back the clock to the 1950′s, and have been a formidable voting bloc. The same evangelical groups that oppose LGBT rights have also invested heavily in poor African nations such as Uganda, and have put forward a vociferous anti-gay agenda. It is the ideal that these Christian groups want for the United States, but are prevented by law. Now these same groups are seeing that work opposed by their government that has largely ignored them and in some cases abetted them. Being unable to inflict their pernicious vision of society in this country or in any other is what these groups, the Republican base, and Fox News really mean when they talk about anti-Christianity or a war on religion.
But mark your calendars. Hillary Clinton’s speech marks an important turning point in LGBT history, the day when the fight against worldwide homophobia began in earnest. In 50 years time, December 6, 2011 will be as important as the anniversary of the Stonewall riots are now.