To Everything There is a Season

June 17, 2009

All decent, fair-minded people should be glad that later today, President Obama will sign a memo extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.  Along with the repeal of restrictions on stem cell research and the shuttering of Guantanamo, the signing is another symbolic, yet substantive illustration of the important differences between the Obama and Bush administrations.

Still, it’s troublesome that this signing comes on the heels of well-deserved criticism, from the Human Rights Campaign to the New York Times, over the Justice Department’s support of the Defense of Marriage Act.  It’s also a fairly obvious move, considering General Motors and Chrysler, companies the Obama Administration practically ridiculed as being 20th century dinosaurs, provided all employee benefits to same-sex domestic partners of its employees nearly a decade ago.  And, a half-baked one, considering the change doesn’t include health care benefits.

What would be more exciting, and more inspiring, is if President Obama started acting like Senator Obama.  Even those of us who were unimpressed by the overwrought, shallow euphoria his campaign stoked did indeed find hope in those first acts of the new president.  Even if those acts did only change policies seen as obviously detrimental to all but their failed architects, they were surely only harbingers of the dynamic, progressive politics to come.

Instead, not even six months after a man who compared homosexuality to bestiality and incest was invited to give the invocation at the most important inauguration since the end of the Cold War, the Obama Justice Department defended indefensible legislation in the most derogatory, inflammatory, hurtful and legally ridiculous terms possible.  It even took a page from Warren’s warped hymnal in comparing gay and incestuous unions.  While the president himself may personally oppose DOMA, his Justice Department’s response to the issue has mostly been to lie about its brief’s necessity.

Perhaps this controversy wouldn’t have escalated so quickly, or loudly, had the president in any way conducted himself as though he deserved the support of gay voters he received in November.  After remaining largely silent on California’s Proposition 8 during the campaign, the White House issued no significant statement on the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a ban on gay unions last month.  While Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger found time to send a supportive if not overly promising tweet, the president was apparently preparing to make light of the promises he made gay voters during the campaign.

Being a leader is not about eloquent speeches or “transparent” press conferences.  Change isn’t brought about by placating opponents whose opposition deserves no consideration.  Courage is not concerned with the politically expedient moment.

John F. Kennedy, whose legend President Obama invoked early and often in his presidential campaign, literally wrote the book on political courage.  In saying that “a man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all morality,” President Kennedy spoke to the heart of all civil rights issues.   This issue, as one of fundamental fairness and basic human decency, is the civil rights issue of our time.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he did so knowing he’d lost political favor in the south for his party.  He did so knowing that his own political career was on the line.  He did so knowing that those opposed were unlikely to recognize their bigotry and prejudice as the petulant, unabashed selfishness it was.  President Kennedy died four months after laying his chances for re-election on the line by introducing the Act.  President Lincoln died at the hands of a man bent on denying liberty to those whose only crime was being different than himself.

It’s ironic that a White House obsessed with messages and symbolism is run by a president apparently either unable or unwilling to rectify the unequal treatment of gay Americans.  It’s disturbing that his inaction inadvertently legitimizes the oppression of anyone or anything that goes against the status quo, or the dogma of private, religious institutions.

President Obama, if he is indeed the man he wanted us, and wants us, to believe he is, must summon the same political courage and moral certitude that did Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.  He must, like Martin Luther King and Susan B. Anthony – and every other American who was ever told they weren’t good enough, weren’t normal, weren’t worthy – defy those who will most assuredly be found on the wrong side of history and humanity.  He must fight for what he knows is right, when it’s time to fight.

The time to fight is now.

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