Thursday, February 24, 2011

Every Little Queer Vote Matters: Reflections On The Demise Of DOMA

"Oh my G-d, he's marrying another man!"
Now that Rahm Emanuel has gone off to work his magic on Chicago, it seems that everyone in the Obama White House has gone a little light in the loafers, as my Dad used to say.  Clinton-era palliatives to the right wing that beat back the gays, while Republicans reorganized to elect a president who would send our money and our jobs abroad, are dropping like flies. First the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell received a timetable for withdrawal, and yesterday Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act because it is unconstitutional.

In both cases, the Obama administration is holding out an olive branch to liberals who have been in an impatient "show me" mood.  But looked at another way, one of the things we know about conservatives is that they are increasingly less persuaded, as a group, in the moral issues that right-wing strategists use to obscure other fiscal and political agendas.  Abortion is probably the one exception to this, and I can't help but wonder whether the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood -- in many communities the only place where uninsured women of low and middle income brackets have access to birth control, breast cancer screening and gynecological care -- isn't going to come back to bite them in the a$$.

What is interesting to me, looking at a longer historical trajectory, is that Obama's tactics in this regard are quite similar to those used by Jimmy Carter in the first two years of his administration. In 1977, the National Gay Task Force (NGTF)* sent a negotiating team of six men and six women to the White House to negotiate a repeal of an Eisenhower-era ban on gays in government.  The group included luminaries of the left like peace activist and radical lesbian feminist Charlotte Bunch, and was backed by former ACLU Sexual Privacy Project attorney Marilyn Haft, who had gone to work in the Carter administration.

Looking at the archival record, which I have recently for an article that will come out in the Journal of Policy History, you can see two things.  One is that Carter's aides wanted nothing to do with gays, and could have gotten away with that.  Unlike feminists, while GLBT Democrats were organized, they had not yet had a structural impact on the party at the national level.  Carter, however, was persuaded that the moral argument against homosexuality did not preclude a human rights argument on behalf of gays who were excluded from access to many citizenship rights because they were homosexuals.  While the NGTF pressed throughout the administration for the President to take a public stand on gay human rights through an executive order that banned discrimination (legislation originally written by Representatives Ed Koch and Bella Abzug in 1972 is still languishing somewhere on the island of Untouchable Bills), what Carter chose to do was simply stand back and allow the NGTF to persuade Cabinet-level agencies to allow homosexuals to grieve discrimination just like all other citizens were entitled to do.

In this way, a great many barriers to employment fell by eliminating the category of sexual orientation as justification for special discrimination in the federal realm.  This had ramifications beyond government employment, since agencies like the FCC and the Treasury had great power to hear, or not hear, complaints about discrimination that shaped critical areas of American cultural and economic life. That said, the administration did not force agencies to conform to this model, which left the military and the national security apparatus largely untouched. 

Indeed, the similarities between Obama's policies and Carter's are more dramatic the harder you look. Few people not on a GLBT listserve of some kind probably noticed that an out transwoman, Amanda Simpson, was appointed to the Commerce Department in 2010, or that six months later, the State Department lifted the requirement that transpeople have surgery to alter their gender on their passports.  This latter move is incredibly important for the freedom of transfolk to cross borders (and incidentally, to consume airfares and whatnot), but it lifts one form of discrimination while leaving the principle in place that gender identity itself is a border that ought to be complicated and difficult to cross.

Two observations, in closing.  White House statements that Obama's personal views in this matter are separate from his presidential responsibilities demonstrate how far we have not come in the last forty years and how far we have come in the last twenty.  That a president cannot simply come out and say all forms of discrimination, even discrimination against people who disgust you personally, is wrong, demonstrates how the Age of Reagan permanently reshaped political discourse.  And yet, the way that this has happened, much as many mainstream GLBT people would like to be embraced by the President, potentially begins a turn away from neoliberal ideologies that have collapsed the public and private realms since 1988.  A neoliberal himself, Obama has nevertheless re-established some clarity between the realm of personal views and the realm of constitutional, public responsibility has, I  would argue, far broader ramifications for developing the concept of good government than we can perceive around this one issue.  But he is doing so in a way that also sets limits to what can be accomplished, since it stops short of an affirmative statement and affirmative actions that ban all forms of discrimination against GLBT people.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

NGTF became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the mid-1980s, and now often colloquially refers to itself as "The Task Force."

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