On Monday, residents in the state of Maine were voting on a referendum motion to overturn a law that had extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. The motion carried – I haven’t been able to find the full results, but to be fair, I didn’t look very hard once I discovered that the ‘No on 1’ campaign (i.e. the people supporting gay marriage) had conceded. This is, clearly, depressing. So far, referenda to outlaw same-sex marriage have been held in 31 states, and every time the supporters of gay marriage have lost. Last November, California – one of the most liberal states in the Union – voted to overturn gay marriage. This November, Maine – in liberal New England – has voted to do the same. The unpopularity of gay marriage in ‘red-neck’ states isn’t surprising, but the unpopularity in liberal heartlands is truly bizarre.
It hurts, as well, that in both California and Maine, the referendum was not a pre-emptive strike to prevent gay marriage being enacted, but a decision to overturn a law that was already in place. People have got married, residents of California and Maine had seen the joy and happiness when people like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were finally able to marry after 55 years together – and have then gone out and voted to take that opportunity away. This isn’t just bigotry, it’s spite.
Despite being so far apart, there are worrying parallels between California and Maine. In both states, the campaign against same-sex marriage was able to massively out-spend the pro campaign. In California, a sizeable sum came from the Mormon church (an organisation that has comparatively few members in California). In Maine, the campaign has resisted legal efforts aimed at forcing them to reveal their sponsors, but a few very large donations were received towards the end of the fundraising period, and there are widespread suspicions that the Mormons may have been behind one or more of these. The identity of another major donor to the anti campaign is known – it was the catholic church. Curiously, the church was able to find hundreds of thousands of dollars for the campaign whilst simultaneously closing several Maine parishes as a result of a financial crisis. Clearly, the catholic church believes restricting the rights of non-catholics is of greater importance than ministering to the religious needs of their own congregations.
This is, I think, a very worrying time for gay people in America. President Obama is very ready with fine words and ringing endorsements of the cause, but is proving noticeably slow to act. Many gay activists are claiming that, had Obama made his support clear, the Maine referendum may well have gone the other way. By no means are all the president’s actions terrible. Since coming to power, he has extended partner benefits to same-sex partners of White House employees (this was one of his first actions in office), appointed a scattering of gay people to positions within his administration, and signed the Mathew Sheppard Act – anti-hate-crime legislation – into law, with, again, many fine words.
At the same time, however, he has refused to press Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton (the last president to claim to be an enthusiastic supporter of gay rights), and which outlaws federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and guarantees that no state will be required to recognise a same-sex marriage solemnized in another. In fact, not only has he failed to call for the repeal of DOMA, his administration actually filed a court brief in support of the Act, in which same-sex marriages were compared to marriages between adults and children.
Let’s be clear, the Obama administration had four choices here: they could have submitted a brief in support of the plaintiff’s case that DOMA violates the US Constitution; they could have not submitted anything; they could have submitted a deliberately weak case in support of the Act; or they could have defended it in the most vigorous and homophobic terms possible. Given that the self-proclaimed ‘fierce advocate’ for gay rights chose the last option, it does rather beg the question: what difference is there between fierce advocacy of gay rights and fierce homophobia? Certainly, they seem to result in the same actions.
Another election pledge Obama is soft-pedalling on is the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. This was another product of the supposedly gay-friendly Clinton administration, and is the informal name for the policy that allows gay people to serve clandestinely in the military, provided they do not
demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts […since this] would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.
The ‘Don’t Tell’ aspect of the policy is clearly meaningless: gay people have always been able to serve in the military, provided they don’t tell anyone they’re gay. The ‘Don’t Ask’ part of the policy amounts to a ban on routinely asking new recruits if they are gay. The military authorities are still permitted – are, in fact, required – to launch an investigation into an individual’s sexuality on the slightest of evidence. Since 1993, when the policy was introduced, some 13,000 people have been discharged from the military for being gay – that’s an average rate of just slightly over two discharges per day – so it can hardly be claimed that this law has protected the right of gay soldiers to serve their country.
In fact, the policy has done the opposite of protecting gay people, as the case of John Rocha demonstrates. Mr Rocha was serving with the US navy in Bahrain when his colleagues began to suspect he was gay, because he declined an opportunity to join them in having sex with a prostitute. He was subjected to a two-year campaign of humiliation and violence – for example, on one occasion his hands and arms were bound before he was forced headfirst into a kennel containing dog faeces. Throughout this time, he was unable to report this abuse to his commanding officer because any investigation into it would have revealed his colleagues’ suspicion that he was gay, and – since he was – this would have triggered his discharge under the terms of DADT.
DADT was established by federal legislation, and Obama has argued that it has to be repealed by Congress. This is in some senses correct, but it overlooks a key point: the President is Commander-in-Chief of the US military. This means he can, without reference to Congress, issue an executive order halting all investigations into the sexual orientation of servicemen and women, and ending the discharge of soldiers and others known to be gay. He cannot directly change the policy, but he can prevent the policy from being implemented. When a member of the armed forces is discharged from service, they are discharged under the authority of the President, not Congress, and it is the holder of the office who has the final say how that authority is exercised. It is true that any subsequent office holder could reverse the order, but this is true of many decisions taken by the president. There is no way President Obama can guarantee that, once his term in office is over, gays will be allowed to serve openly in the military. He is able to guarantee it while he is in office – and it is this which he has declined to do.
Disappointment with Obama on a range of issues (the economic bailout, Afghanistan, healthcare reform, gay rights) seems to be becoming fairly widespread – just as I predicted it would – and I think a key part of the reason that has happened so fast is that Obama and his team are conducting themselves as though they were still fighting the election campaign. They don’t seem to have recognised that they won the White House in a landslide which gave them a powerful following wind and left their opponents in disarray. They don’t seem to quite understand that there is – exceptionally – a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, and that this gives them a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve the things they want to achieve. Instead, they seem almost paralysed by the hostility of Republicans and the Republican-controlled parts of the media, or by a desire to foster bi-partisanship where this is clearly not going to be forthcoming.
They seem, most importantly of all, not to understand the urgency. Gay voters, in particular, are being repeatedly encouraged to be patient, and to accept the frankly ludicrous assertion that the administration can only pursue one policy at a time, and that, if they just sit tight and keep their fingers crossed, everything will come good in the end. But it’s highly unlikely, come the mid-term elections this time next year, that the Democrats will still hold a majority in both houses of congress. Once that’s lost, it becomes many times harder for the president to pursue his agenda – apart from anything else, he is operating under the constant threat that his budget will be blocked. For things a majority of Republicans will never consent to – like the extension of gay rights, and the reform of healthcare – there wasn’t an eight-year window, or even a four-year one, to get things done. There was, almost certainly, a two-year window, and it’s already half gone. Given that the repeated votes against gay marriage are likely to increase rather than decrease Obama’s caution, it would seem likely that the best hope for gay people to achieve their civil rights in the foreseeable future has already been lost.
I was never a wide-eyed idealist when it came to President Obama. Almost exactly a year ago I argued that the most he was likely to achieve was a mild improvement in most things. I am no longer quite so certain he will manage even that, since I was presuming that he would at least try to get things done, and not constantly prevaricate in hopes that a mythical ‘right time’ will emerge. There will be no ‘right time’, or, at least, no time that is righter than now. Words are wonderful, and well-received, and in an election campaign they are all you have; but once you are in government, action (and inaction) speaks louder than words.
No-one can take away Obama’s place in history – he was the first African American elected to the presidency, and that, in and of itself, was enormously significant – but his chances of making a place for himself in history because of his achievements in office is melting away. A combination of excessive caution and an unwillingness to antagonise the people who will despise him whatever he does seems likely to ensure that the Obama administration will not go down in history as a great reforming presidency. Possibly not, of course – there is still time to turn things around – but it seems more likely than not that he will fail.
It seems to me that this is symptomatic of a serious crisis in American liberalism. We are used to the idea of crises like these following electoral defeat. What is truly bizarre about this one is that it has followed a stunning electoral victory, when the citizens of America overwhelmingly endorsed a liberal agenda – and yet the liberals are still failing to act. Gay people are really just caught in the cross-fire of this failure, but it’s still not a good time to be gay in America. How can it be, when even a ‘fierce advocate’ for your cause won’t step up to the plate and act?