Thus far in his presidency, however, Obama has not demonstrated his fierceness. Although he invited gay and lesbian families to participate in the White House annual Easter Egg Roll (as they did during the Bush administration) and chose John Berry, an openly gay man, to head the Office of Personnel Management (a non-Cabinet position), outside of these symbolic gestures, nothing significant has occurred. In fact, the only recent substantial progress in GLBT rights has resulted from social movement activism in various liberal states. The federal government remains a dead letter.
Two Fierce Advocates for GLBT Rights: Daniel Choi and Sandy Tsao
The recent military discharge of two Asian-Americans who publicly identified as being gay and lesbian creates a new political imperative for action. Lieutenant Daniel Choi, a member of the Army National Guard, founded Knights Out – an organization for GLBT West Point alumni. Second Lieutenant Sandy Tsao identified herself as a lesbian to her chain of command in January 2009. Tsao also sent Obama a letter expressing plan to stop lying about her sexual orientation.
The military has informed Choi and Tsao of their impending discharges, and their stories have received national media coverage. Also, Obama recently responded to Tsao’s letter with a handwritten note that states the following:
Sandy - Thanks for the wonderful and thoughtful letter. It is because of outstanding Americans like you that I committed to changing our current policy. Although it will take some time to complete (partly because it needs Congressional action) I intend to fulfill my commitment. — Barack Obama.Obama’s letter to Sandy is an amazing piece of history, because it probably (although I cannot make this claim with certainty) represents the only official correspondence from a president to an individual lesbian citizen describing his opposition to sexual orientation discrimination and his desire to repeal discriminatory laws. But the letter also functions as classic political rhetoric because it seeks to soothe and calm potential anger among GLBT activists so that any change on GLBT legal issues will occur at a pace that Obama favors.
Even before his presidency began, several news articles indicated that Obama would place GLBT legislative reform on the back burner. Furthermore, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had previously stated during the Bush administration that the ongoing wars made it impossible for the government to address DADT. Gates has restated this justification for inaction by the Obama administration. It now seems very clear that with respect to GLBT rights, Obama will talk now and act at some undetermined time in the future, if at all.
Choi, like a growing number of GLBT rights advocates, wants immediate action. Choi has written a passionate “Open Letter to President Obama and Every Member of Congress” that asks the government not to “fire” him and condemns the premise upon which DADT rests – that “homosexuality” deteriorates troop morale and cohesion:
As an infantry officer, I am not accustomed to begging. But I beg you today: Do not fire me. Do not fire me because my soldiers are more than a unit or a fighting force – we are a family and we support each other. We should not learn that honesty and courage leads to punishment and insult. Their professionalism should not be rewarded with losing their leader. I understand if you must fire me, but please do not discredit and insult my soldiers for their professionalism.In addition to the Choi and Tsao matters, ongoing litigation challenges DADT and DOMA’s denial of federal benefits to same-sex couples. The government has not responded to the substance of these cases, but both lawsuits present legal issues that Obama says he supports. Accordingly, the government’s response will test the President’s commitment to his promises regarding GLBT rights.
Although Obama cannot repeal DADT, he probably has the authority as Commander-in-Chief to order the military not to discharge any more GLBT service members while he conducts a review of the policy. He followed this same approach with respect to proceedings in military commissions, which he also disparaged during his campaign (but which he will now revive).
GLBT rights groups could probably do more to build a public consensus on this issue if they stressed the economic consequences of a military discharge – which means loss of employment and, potentially, a loss of educational and health care benefits. Choi and Tsao’s public statements appeal exclusively to military valor and honor and to the wrongfulness of sexual orientation discrimination. While these are effective ways of framing the issue, the sagging economy presents a powerful opportunity to emphasize one of the most immediate adverse implications of DADT: the loss of work and benefits. The public's current sensitivity and vulnerability to unemployment could likely enhance political support for measures that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
National reform on GLBT issues must necessarily occur at a slower pace than in the liberal blue states that have recently approved same-sex marriage and where preexisting laws prohibited sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. But the level of national opposition to GLBT rights does not preclude any substantive progress within federal law, nor does it require delaying such changes while Obama endeavors to achieve global peace, universal health care, a robust world economy, the 2016 Summer Olympics for Chicago, and his many other lofty goals. To use his own words, a president must have the ability to multi-task. I agree. Making some movement on GLBT rights will not overwhelm the president or the nation. In fact, on some issues, like DADT, a majority of the public supports reform. Accordingly, it is now time for the President and Congress to begin making concrete progress on GLBT rights.