Gay Rights: Lots of Noise, but No Tangible Progress

By Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor, CQ Researcher

Gay-rights advocates made no tangible progress toward most of their policy goals after a weekend of high-profile events in Washington that included a major presidential speech and a national march by tens of thousands of gays and straight allies.

President Obama drew raucous cheers on Saturday night [Oct. 10] as he reiterated at the Human Rights Campaign’s $250-a-plate dinner his support for enacting a federal law to prohibit discrimination against gays in employment, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The next day, however, Obama’s remarks drew decidedly mixed reactions from speakers who addressed the National Equality March from the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Many of the speakers and many of the march participants described themselves as Obama supporters but complained of the lack of concrete action in his speech.

Obama is “verbally committed” to gay-rights goals, said Marco Chan, co-chair of the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies, but there “wasn’t a particular point of action.” Chan was among a group of about two dozen Harvard students who came for the march, which began a couple of blocks from the White House and proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol for nearly four hours of speeches and entertainment.

The march drew participants from all over the country, including 40 busloads from New York City’s theater community and an eight-person delegation from Alaska. Plans for the march had divided the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. National groups were slow to endorse the march. Some local and state groups complained the event was diverting money and manpower away from state ballot measures in Maine and Washington.

With no official counts, crowd estimates varied widely. Speakers claimed “hundreds of thousands” had marched. The Washington Post used “tens of thousands.” Time magazine made what seemed to many a generous estimate of about 200,000. Whatever the number, the crowd began drifting away by late afternoon after an appearance by the event’s star entertainment attraction: the bisexual pop singing sensation, Lady Gaga.

In his speech the night before, Obama had urged gay-rights supporters to increase pressure on politicians, “including me.” But he made no reference to the march in his 25-minute address. Obama told the crowd of about 3,000 that he expected Congress to complete action as early as this week on a federal hate-crimes provision that will add penalties for offenses motivated by prejudice based on, among other categories, sexual orientation. The bill is named for Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die on Oct. 12, 1998.

On other issues, however, Obama was less concrete. He repeated his pledge to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibits service members from being openly gay or lesbian. But he did not reply to calls from some gay-rights advocates to use his power as commander in chief to suspend the policy in advance of congressional action. (For background, see Peter Katel, "Gays in the Military," CQ Researcher, Sept. 18.)

Obama also said he would work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to gay couples. But he did not comment on the Maine ballot measure, which would overturn a law recognizing gay marriage, or a measure in the state of Washington, which would overturn a law granting domestic-partner benefits to gay couples. (For background, see Kenneth Jost, "Gay Marriage Showdowns," CQ Researcher, Sept. 26, 2008.)

Many gay commentators were critical. On CNN, columnist-blogger Dan Savage remarked that Obama had said nothing that he had not already said during his 2008 presidential campaign. Hillary Rosen, a longtime gay-rights supporter and now a CNN contributor, countered by appealing for more patience from gay-rights advocates.

The rally at the Capitol featured speeches by a diverse collection of upwards of 50 gay-rights advocates, ranging from veteran activist David Mixner to several leaders of LGBT youth organizations. Toward the end, the rally featured half a dozen openly gay elected local or state officials from Virginia to Hawaii. But no member of Congress or other federal official spoke.
Many of the speakers rejected calls for patience on LGBT issues. “Good things do come,” said keynote speaker Julian Bond, head of the NAACP. “They don’t come to those who wait,” he continued. “They come to those who agitate.”

In her turn, Robin McGehee, co-chair for the march, derided Obama for the lack of concrete action. She mocked Obama’s credit-taking for inviting LGBT families to the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House law. The invitation, she said, was “just like the ticket for the back of the bus.”

“It is time to take action,” McGehee said, speaking to the absent Obama. “I want evidence that you can be a fierce advocate for the rights of my two children and the LGBT community.”