Last night at the Human Rights Campaign dinner President Barack Obama delivered his first big speech on lgbt issues since becoming President. There was much anticipation for the speech, as some in the gay community feel that the President has not moved fast enough on the issues affecting our community.
What is “an LGBT Issue”?
But what impressed me about the speech was not that he failed to set a date or timetable for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or that he offered no new legislative strategy to pass ENDA, but rather the “queer-ness” of his remarks. After a pretty funny joke where he thanked HRC for inviting him to be the opening act for Lady Gaga, he acknoweldged that many in the audience held the view that “progress had not come fast enough” on lgbt issues. He challenged the assembled homo audience to think expansively about what it means for something to be an “lgbt issue”:
I think it’s important to remember that there is not a single issue that my administration deals with on a daily basis that does not touch on the lives of the lgbt community. We all have a stake in reviving this ecomony. We all have a stake in putting people back to work. We all have a stake in improving our schools and in acheiving quality, affordable healthcare. We all have a stake in meeting the difficult challenges we face in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These and other remarks signaled the President’s strong anti-identitarian and non-institutional approach to civil rights, an approach not shared by the likes of HRC and many other lgbt rights groups. Rejecting the notion that “our issues” are exhausted by those that have “our names” on them, such as “gay marriage,” “gays in the military,” or a “gay-rights bill,” Obama suggested that the community take on a much more ambitious agenda. Take the marriage equality campaign, for instance. Many lgbt people seek the legal recognition of their relationships in order to gain their partner’s health benefits. But there are many, many lesbian and gay people who can’t or won’t marry someone with good benefits, and a right to marry a same sex partner won’t help them. Health care reform that secures a right to decent health care, regardless of one’s marital status or one’s ability to hook up with someone with good benefits, surely should be on “our agenda,” as Obama put it to us in his HRC speech.
In a sense the President was subtly acknowledging that there are large parts of the lgbt community that would never attend one of these dinners, and that don’t see HRC as “their” organization. I’m going to guess that very few of the people attending the dinner – all of whom paid at least $250 to attend (and many paid much more) – had been laid off in the last six months and/or were among the upwards of 47 million Americans without health insurance. Indeed, the President was one of the very few people of color in the room who wasn’t serving the food and clearing the tables. If you check out HRC’s website, it’s health tab says nothing about the pending health care reform legislation in Congress or whether HRC has taken a position on the legislation. It’s clearly not part of “their agenda.”
In his HRC speech, President Obama also challenged his audience to think expansively about what it means to be gay or lesbian:
For, while some may wish to define you solely for your sexual orientation or gender identity alone, you know and I know that none of us wants to be defined by just one part of what makes us whole.
This was perhaps the queerest moment of the speech. Rather than invoking the now-common, creepily nationalistic moniker “gay-American” that Jim McGreevy tragically wrapped himself in when he came out in 2004, Obama’s speech urged his audience to focus more on interests than on identity.
Rather than reading Obama’s remarks as somehow falling short when it comes to ticking off the gay agenda, maybe we should listen more closely. Could it be that his support of civil unions instead of marriage rights for same sex couples, and his prioritization of health care and jobs over the immediate repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mark how he’s actually out in front of “us”? More progressive than “we” are?
Take a moment and read Lisa Duggan’s piece in the Nation from last summer, What’s Right with Utah, in which she describes the successful and radically progressive political campaign going on in Salt Lake City undertaken by the lgbt community after they lost the chance to gain marriage rights when the state constitution was amended barring such unions. They regrouped, found straight partners with whom to work in coalition, and have taken on much broader reforms than what they could have accomplished with “mere” marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples. Brilliantly, they found local Mormons who opposed gay marriage, but who said they weren’t homophobic and took them at their word. They found that of this group 62 percent supported employment nondiscrimination laws, 56 percent supported fair housing laws and 73 percent supported granting adult designees of state employees health insurance coverage. They also found that 56 percent backed legal protections like inheritance rights and job protection for LGBT people. When they could no longer ask for marriage they found unlikely partners with whom they could ask for much more than what marriage would have provided.
This is the subtle premise of Obama’s speech last night: think critically and progresively about what it means for something to be part of “the gay agenda.” His remarks cautioned a kind of self-ghettoization that is always at risk when one’s politics are premised on and invested in a claim to identity that demands that political and legal victories be framed in terms of a ratification of that identity. So too, there is a lesson in these remarks for the groups that speak on behalf of that identity, such as HRC.
The good news is that there are organizations that see the connection between, for instance, the health care public option and the interests of lgbt and queer people. Queers for Economic Justice is perhaps the best but not the only example. See their work on health care here.