Asking Gay Americans to Wait

by Andrew Kessinger on October 29, 2009

Waiting till it is too late?

When President Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law Wednesday, human rights advocates across the country won a decent, but insufficient, victory.

At face value, the bill is but a reluctant acknowledgment that Americans assaulted because of their sexual orientation are indeed victims of bigotry. Adding insult to injury, the measure had to be attached to a defense spending bill just to pass.

Is this the best Congress can muster when it comes to advancing gay rights?

Such legislation will not bring back to life Matthew Shepard or James Byrd Jr., the slain men for whom the act is named. Nor will it make Jack Price — the gay New Yorker beaten nearly to death this month — any less battered. The law morbidly protects gays only after they have been attacked; any consideration for their safety and human rights before such an occurrence still seems a congressional afterthought.

Put another way, our nation’s dead and hospitalized homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people are receiving after-the-fact sympathies, while the healthy gays and lesbians among us are expected to suffer from the same root discrimination. Are rights advocates expected to remain patient, even happy, about such progress?

The proverbial plate is too full, pooh-poohs our political elite. The rationale underlying such sentiments is that reforming our nation’s health-care system, improving our economy and winning the war in Afghanistan must of course take priority over gay rights.

Such logic is meaningless to Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, who after 18 years of exemplary service is facing dismissal for “damaging” the Air Force’s “good order and discipline.” Obama has pledged to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay service members, but he has yet to set a timetable. Meanwhile, Fehrenbach is one of many whose sexual orientation unfairly compromises their jobs, health benefits, retirement — and, ultimately, our nation’s war efforts. Political side-stepping of the issue also suggests that more sacrifice is required of a man who has already devoted much of his life to serving our country.

I come from a different generation — the one that showed up in unprecedented numbers to vote last November and by doing so helped elect a president who just happens to be the first minority to hold that office. It was noble — even hip — to fight against the bigotry and discrimination that the Obama campaign faced. Wasn’t our country in an economic crisis, debating health-care reform and fighting two wars at that time, too?

Recall the widespread dismay when Sen. John McCain suspended his campaign last fall to focus solely on the bailout plan. “Part of the president’s job is to deal with more than one thing at once,” Obama said in response. “In my mind it’s more important than ever.”

Obama was right then, and the point is still important. America needs the same multitasking attitude from all our elected officials.

It is wrong to ask gay Americans to wait until every future war is won, every societal ill is treated and every business is booming before being granted equal protection under law; it is equally disturbing to think that today, one must be a victim of a hate crime before receiving such consideration.

Is it too much to ask for more, sooner rather than later?

This article was first published in the Washington Post. Photo by Stanford University.

Update October 29, 2009

Both Slate and the Atlantic have referenced my article!  Even more exciting, the free-style investigative journalist William Wolfrum turned it into satire, giving the ideas a second (and I admit, even more scathing) life.  Now, both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams have weighed in!

Also, I’ve taken the liberty to include some of the best comments below — from all sides of the aisle — from the Washington Post’s online debate.

I also would like to post this email (with the author’s name removed) that I received.  It’s touching, humbling, and reminds me why I write:

Dear Andrew,

I’m a 56-year-old lesbian (and an attorney) and writing to thank you for your recent op-ed in the Washington Post, which expressed the same frustration that I feel with the powers that be in Washington and, to a certain extent, in our own movement, who want us to be content with what are, relatively speaking, legislative crumbs.

I’ve been working for gay rights since 1972 when, as a junior at Princeton, I helped found the Gay Alliance of Princeton, the school’s first gay student organization.  As a gay person in this country, I long ago reached my Fannie Lou Hamer moment — I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.   I’m tired of the fact that gay people who want to serve our country are still losing their jobs in the armed services.  I’m tired of the fact that my partner of 31 years and I are treated like legal strangers.  I’m tired of the fact that in so many places in this country, people can be fired just because they are gay.

I was heartened to see so many young people at the March here in D.C. on October 11 who will not accept this status quo, and heartened by your op-ed.  Thanks again.

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  • http://secondpassage.com/ Andrew Kessinger

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  • http://secondpassage.com/ Andrew Kessinger

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  • DC_Brown

    I couldn't agree more. The desperate reached into the barrel and pulled out an old apple from the bottom. As long as DADT and DOMA are still law, we are all second class citizens. I can't tell you how many times I have voted and donated to Democrats to get change. Why the delay? Are they waiting until they lose more seats in the mid-term elections? Act now.

  • ElizabethG

    My religion teaches that gays are perverted. The bill is against my religion which was founded over 2000 years ago and which our Country was founded upon.

  • tjmlrc

    I miss the good old days when the homos stayed in the closet.

  • sober1

    It is true, Mr. Kessinger, that the legislation that you favor isn't moving as quickly or is as effective as it might be. Join the line. Improving regulations on Wall Street trading and the banking industry aren't either. The same is true for regulating insurance and credit card companies, assuring racial equality, air quality, global warming, etc. We are, unfortunately, not a society of instant gratification. I'm certain other groups believe as fervently as you that things aren't moving fast enough, but there are still priorities, and only a specific volume of tasks can be accomplished well and in a timely manner in spite of what everyone claims is possible with multitasking. Few people do approve of combining non-related measures, but if you rule it out, things will move even slowly than they already do. Sure, reforms are needed, but please share your needs with other equally deserving programs.

  • SteveBurns1947

    Excellent piece. A lot of people I know are really disillusioned about the failure to repeal “don't ask, don't tell” which Obama could do with a stroke of the pen. The democrats may find a lot of us at home next time, while the republicans are out voting.

    The democratic party may well think we have no place else to go. While I would hate to see another term of buffoons at the helm under Palin, it might wake my party up to the fact that, for us, the hour is late and there are promises that need to be kept.

  • klakey1

    I don't think that President Obama is asking gay Americans to wait until every future war is won, every societal ill is treated and every business is booming before he turns to working on equal protection under the law for gays. That's a straw-man proposition, and not to be taken seriously. Politics is the art of the possible, and there really are a multitude of evils to be addressed, not just discrimination against gays. You do what you can when you can. For gays, or any other constituency, to expect more than that is childish.

  • uh_huhh

    Bravo! There is never a convenient time for heterosexual Democrats to eliminate anti-gay discrimination. Anything they say is just another excuse for refusing to act. The employment discrimination bill has been pending since 1974, for nearly my entire 40-year-old life. NO MORE EXCUSES! NO MORE WAITING!

  • JUNGLEJIM123

    news flash ****** Gays have ALWAYS been in the military — protecting your sorry ignorant rear ends while you drink, curse, commit adultery, beat your wives, have abortions and carry on your every day miserable hypocritical lives only being concerned about yourselves. Wake up… someone who has served this country honorably for 18 years should not be thrown out of the military now based on whom they may love. Would you like to take their place? Naw… we didn't think so… Getting shot at or blown apart isn't very sexual. They don't need to join the military for sex… they can get that anywhere in the world 24 hours a day, even right next door to many of you.

  • Michael C

    Every special interest bunch of whiners has to elevate their cause to entitlement due them, excluding the majority. More national referendums by CITIZENS would determine what the majority really desires.

  • DoctorT1

    Mr. Kessinger makes the argument forcefully and more convincingly than a majority of the harrumphing gewgaws flapping their gums (both pro and con) every afternoon on cable TV. With the generational turnover, the time is rapidly passing when people are going to mildly accept waiting forever to receive the freedoms and security they're entitled to.

  • Skkye

    Or when your grand daddy could hang negroes. Those were the good ol’ days!

  • MikeOlred

    The beautiful thing about our nation is that you have the right to think and practice your religion as you see fit. You do not, however, have the right to force that religious belief on me or anyone else in this nation by codifying the scripture that you follow into civil law.

    Go to church, practice your faith, but stay away from my liberties. I’ll extend you the same favor.

  • JimR

    The United States of America is not just a democracy — it is a constitutional democracy. What that means is that our government is designed to express not only the will of the majority (democracy), but also to simultaneously protect the unalienable rights of minorities and the powerless. That is an extremely important point because it is the constitutional protection of minorities and the powerless that add civility, humanity, and decency to what could otherwise be a barbaric nation — democratic or not.

    In other words, democracy alone does not ensure that a nation will act humanely and decently. A majority can at times be quite cruel and unfair. Lynch mobs will generally express the will of the majority (of the mob, that is). The majority of whole nations can at times approve of and do terrible things. Even genocides can at times express the will of the majority. And that is precisely why our Founding Fathers recognized the need for a Constitution that would protect the rights of minorities and the powerless.

    Thus it is that our Constitution provides the foundation for our nation; that it has for more than two centuries provided our nation with international respect and credibility; and that the abandonment of our Constitution under the “leadership” of George Bush and Dick Cheney has largely eliminated the international esteem which our nation was previously held, reversed more than two centuries of progress, and now threatens to throw our nation and our world back into the Dark Ages.

  • http://secondpassage.com/ Andrew Kessinger

    Check out this new campaign called “Don't Ask, Don't Give!” Exactly the right response, IMO. http://gay.americablog.com/2009/11/dont-ask-don

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