Can Obama Win Over The Gay Community?

By Josh Gerstein
|  Saturday, Oct 10, 2009  |  Updated 11:47 AM PDT
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Strident conservative attacks on two of President Barack Obama’s gay nominees could temper the impatience gay and lesbian activists show as he speaks to a major gay civil rights group Saturday night — but the widespread restlessness still will be palpable.

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Strident conservative attacks on two of President Barack Obama’s gay nominees could temper the impatience gay and lesbian activists show as he speaks to a major gay civil rights group Saturday night — but the widespread restlessness still will be palpable.

Obama’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign dinner comes just days after a gay Education Department official, Kevin Jennings, and a lesbian nominee to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chai Feldblum, were targets of a flurry of criticism from conservative groups and some media outlets.

“It certainly can’t hurt if people on our side realize the vehemence of the opposition the president faces,” a top gay Democrat close to Obama told POLITICO. “The stuff the right wing is cranking out is horrible, terrible. There are a lot of understandably impatient LGBT Americans…but while all their criticism is well-intended, some of it is politically naïve.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) also said gay activists lobbing criticism after criticism at Obama are ignoring real progress being made on Capitol Hill.

“These concerns are wildly unfounded and silly,” Frank told POLITICO. “As Obama speaks, Congress is about to send him the first piece of gay civil rights legislation in American history,” the congressman said, referring to a hate-crimes bill passed Thursday by the House.

Ever since taking office, Obama has come under fire from leading gay and lesbian activists who say he’s foot-dragging on their top priorities – repealing a ban on gays in the military, expanding same-sex marriage and prohibiting workplace discrimination.

Obama has pleaded for patience – saying he’s believes in expanding gay rights but has so much on his plate with the recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he and Congress just need more time.

Now the attacks on Jennings and Feldblum provide a potent reminder of the perils gays and lesbians still face in the political sphere.

Late last month, the Washington Times, Fox News and others alleged that while Jennings was teaching at a Massachusetts school in 1988 he encouraged statutory rape by advising a gay teenager in a relationship with an older man to use a condom. Initial accounts said the youth was 15, but it later emerged that he was 16, the age of consent in Massachusetts.

Jennings, head of the Education Department’s safe and drug-free schools programs, said he regretted the episode and should have reported the incident to authorities. However, conservative groups and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) are still calling for his ouster.

The latest target of attack by conservatives is Feldblum, a Georgetown law professor Obama nominated to join the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“She has praised polygamy and contended that traditional marriage should not have privileged status. Apparently, this is just an oddball duck,” radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his program earlier this week.

“I know it’s difficult for a lot of you to understand that there are Americans who don't like this country as constituted,” Limbaugh said. “You think they’re fringe protesters that show up to protest this or that. No. They're running the country now.”

Richard Socarides, the White House liaison to the gay community under President Bill Clinton, said the attacks on Jennings and Feldblum are “pretty much coming from the fringe, but it’s a reminder these issues still have a lot of pop for people in various parts of the country.”

The attacks have a silver lining for Obama. They underscore one aspect of the president’s record gay activists are generally elated about — his nomination of about 100 openly gay and lesbian people to administration jobs.

And the leader of one major gay organization said the attacks on Jennings and Feldblum could shift some of the criticism away from Obama and toward Republicans in Congress – most of whom voted against the hate crimes bill Thursday.

 

“I think it does that really clearly,” said the advocate, who asked not to be named. Obama “could say, ‘There are people out there who don’t even want you in the room, don’t want you in positions of power. Don’t think as we get into these debates they aren’t going to come out of the woodwork and throw hellfire at us.’ ”

Gay-rights leaders said they are satisfied with the administration’s defense of the embattled appointees so far but made clear they’re watching for any signs of wavering.

Jennings and Feldblum “are being targeted not just because they’re gay, but because they’re openly gay and involved in the LGBT civil rights movement,” said Kevin Cathcart of Lambda Legal. “In some quarters of our community, there are concerns about how the administration deals with this…Will they continue backing people up? Will they continue appointing people? How much heat are they going to take?”

And Socarides, Clinton’s liaison, said he didn’t think Obama would get any extra credit just for defending two members of his administration he should stick by anyway.

Some gays and lesbians are still hoping for a major announcement from Obama on Saturday—such as word of an executive order suspending discharges of gays and lesbians from the military. However, there were no indications from the White House that the president would make news.

“He looks forward to speaking directly with the LGBT community about the steps his administration has taken thus far and the progress he hopes to achieve in the coming weeks and months,” White House spokesman Shin Inouye said Friday.

Obama is expected to emphasize what activists deride as “incremental” steps he has taken for gay rights: making federal benefits for same-sex partners more widely available and moving to repeal a ban on immigration by people with HIV.

“They're nice small steps worthy of a President, and a civil rights community, living in the last century. They are unworthy gestures to a core Democratic constituency that was made specific, repeated promises in exchange for its votes, promises that are now being rewritten to ease the political pain of true leadership,” John Aravosis wrote Friday on Huffington Post.

But Frank argued some of the advocates are missing the point – that while they complain about Obama, serious work is getting done on Capitol Hill.

“We are on track to pass four pieces of major civil rights legislation,” Frank said, citing the hate crimes measure, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a rollback of the ban on gays in the military, and a measure to give health and life insurance benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

“If people in the gay community who are complaining about Barack Obama . . . would instead call their senators, we might have the 60 votes we need to pass the bills,” Frank said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs struck a similar tone Thursday, urging those seeking a repeal of the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy to direct their energies to Congress.

Even if Obama plans no substantive policy announcements Saturday, there are things he could say to energize the crowd. Some would like Obama to make a forceful statement against a measure Maine voters will take up in November to repeal a new state law authorizing same-sex marriage.

A spokeswoman for one major conservative group faulted Obama for speaking to the Human Rights Campaign, which she called “the most radical homosexual group in the country.”

“It’s almost as if President Obama seems to be acting as an arm of gay activists who are working to silence Christians,” said Candi Cushman of Focus on the Family.

She also denied that Jennings and Feldblum were being targeted because of their sexuality. “This is not about their private life. This is about the public policy they are pushing,” the spokeswoman said.

Frank said any gay person who needed to be reminded that the community faces strident opposition is simply out of it.

“I wouldn’t let them vote,” the congressman said, before adding, “I guess you have to let them vote because it’s in the Constitution, but I wish you didn’t.”

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