This magazine has made no secret of its high regard for Barack Obama. Which makes it all the more distressing for us to observe the approach that his administration is taking on gay rights. During the campaign, Obama said all the right things (well, almost all—like most national politicians, he wouldn’t endorse same-sex marriage). He invoked the importance of winning “equality” and “dignity” and “respect” for gays and lesbians. Now he is president. And one of the perks of being president is that you get to lead. But, when it comes to gay issues, leading does not seem to interest this White House.
There was, during the first few months of the administration, an understandable reluctance among liberals to believe that gay rights were being systematically sidelined—and a genuine willingness to be patient on the issue. Yes, the prominence of Rick Warren at the inauguration was irksome. But Obama had to reach out to religious conservatives somehow, to show them that he intended to be the president of Red America, too. And, yes, Obama seemed to evince little initial interest in fulfilling either of his principal campaign pledges to the gay community: finally permitting gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military and repealing the noxious Defense of Marriage of Act signed by Bill Clinton back in 1996. But let’s be realistic: He had two wars to fight, an economy to mend, and an environment to save. And no one expected gay rights to be his top priority. Give him time, the thinking went.
But then hints began to trickle out that this optimism might be misplaced. First, there were the comments of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who told Fox News in March that repealing Don’t Ask, Don't Tell “has really not progressed very far at this point in the administration”—then added, “The president and I feel like we’ve got a lot on our plates right now and let’s push that one down the road a little bit.” Two months later came the revelation that the Justice Department had submitted a rather energetic brief in federal court backing the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Actthe very same act Obama had pledged to repeal. Assailed by liberals, the administration protested that it was merely standard practice for the government to submit briefs in defense of existing law. That was true, as far as it went. But defending existing law, while the norm, is not a requirement; and administrations have declined to do so in the past over far less significant matters.
So last week, perhaps stung by growing outrage within the gay community, Obama signed a memorandum giving same-sex partners of federal employees some, but not all, of the benefits enjoyed by heterosexual spouses. (Notably missing: health care.) At the signing ceremony, Obama explained that he was prevented from going further by existing law. Then he pledged to try to get the law changed. This is all well and good. But if Obama thinks that these scraps can make up for the otherwise dismal record he is accumulating on gay issues, then he is quite mistaken.
In all of this, nothing is more infuriating than Obama’s refusal to act on Don’t Ask, Don't Tell. It is true that the issue affects a relatively small number of gays and lesbians. But discrimination in our armed forces carries a potent symbolism: It tells an entire class of people that the country is not interested in their service. And it would be an easy problem to fix. As Nathaniel Frank argued at TNR Online last month, Obama may need Congress’ approval to officially repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but he has the legal authority to tell the Pentagon to stop enforcing the policy via executive order. He could do it tomorrow. As for the political risks: Obama should look at some polls. Unlike same-sex marriage, the question of whether gays should serve openly in the military is no longer a particularly controversial issue. According to Gallup, 69 percent of Americans believe gays should be able to serve openly. To put that number in perspective, it is 25 points higher than the percentage of Americans who endorse Obama’s handling of health care, 19 points higher than the percentage who currently support the war in Afghanistan, and 18 points higher than the percentage who approve of the administration's economic policies. Obama is not afraid to push health care reform, send more troops to Afghanistan, or stand by his stimulus program—nor should he be. But why, when it comes to the far less controversial cause of gays serving in the military, is he apparently willing to punt?
And so, the Pentagon continues to expel gay troops. The Defense of Marriage Act continues to wreak havoc on the lives of gay families. And we fail to perceive “equality” “dignity” or “respect” in any of this.