by Mark Silva
Sen. Barack Obama “has been weathering a small storm lately in “the LGBT community’’ for being too tight-lipped with gay and lesbian news media,’’ The Advocate reports.
Obama sat for an interview with the journal of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and confronted some of the central questions on the magazine’s mind – such as the military’s policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’’ for gay members of the armed forces.
“I reasonably can see “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” eliminated,’’ Obama told the magazine, though he wouldn’t make the issue “a litmus test’’ for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Obama was asked where his belief in equality stems from: “Well, it starts with my mom,’’ he replied, “who just always instilled in me a belief that everybody’s of equal worth and a strong sense of empathy -- that you try to see people through their eyes, stand in their shoes,’’ he said. “So I think that applies to how I see all people.’’
Obama, who favors repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, was pressed about why he supports civil unions for gay and lesbian couples but not marriage: "I’m the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born. That doesn’t mean that had I been an adviser to Dr. King back then, I would have told him to lead with repealing an antimiscegenation law, because it just might not have been the best strategy in terms of moving broader equality forward. ‘’
Obama acknowledged that the discussion of all of this may make some uncomfortable – but said it must be confronted. “I tell you what,’’the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination told the magazine. “Mmy campaign is premised on trying to reach as many constituencies as possible and to go into as many places as possible, and sometimes that creates discomfort or turbulence.’’
“Unlike his rival, Hillary Clinton, who's given interviews to Logo and several local papers since appearing on the cover of The Advocate last fall,’’ the magazine’s news editior, Kelly Eleveld, writes, “the Illinois senator has only talked once, to address the Donnie McClurkin controversy. But last week, his campaign offered our magazine an exclusive sit-down in Chicago with the man who may well become the next President of the United States.''
“Why the silence on gay issues?’’ Eleveld asked Obama.
"I don’t think it’s fair to say silence on gay issues,’’ Obama told the magazine.“The gay press may feel like I’m not giving them enough love. But basically, all press feels that way at all times.''
See the full interview in The Advocate, and a summary of it here:
“Obviously, when you’ve got limited amount of time, you’ve got so many outlets,’’ Obama said in the interview. “We tend not to do a whole bunch of specialized press. We try to do general press for a general readership.
“But I haven’t been silent on gay issues,’’ Obama told the magazine. “What’s happened is, I speak oftentimes to gay issues to a public general audience.
"When I spoke at Ebenezer Church for King Day, I talked about the need to get over the homophobia in the African-American community, when I deliver my stump speeches routinely I talk about the way that antigay sentiment is used to divide the country and distract us from issues that we need to be working on, and I include gay constituencies as people that should be treated with full honor and respect as part of the American family.
“So I actually have been much more vocal on gay issues to general audiences than any other presidential candidate probably in history.’’
So the magazine asked this: “The underlying fear of the gay community is that if you get into office, will LGBT folks be last on the priority list? ''
“I guess my point would be that the fact that I’m raising issues accordant to the LGBT community in a general audience rather than just treating you like a special interest that is sort of off in its own little box – that, I think, is more indicative of my commitment,’’ the senator said. “Because ultimately what that shows is that I’m not afraid to advocate on your behalf outside of church, so to speak. It’s easy to preach to the choir; what I think is harder is to speak to a broader audience about why these issues are important to all Americans.’’
What could he do for the LGBT community?
“I reasonably can see “don’t ask, don’t tell” eliminated,’’ Obama said. “I think that I can help usher through an Employment Non-Discrimination Act and sign it into law.’’
What if his Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed repealing the don’t ask policy?
“I would never make this a litmus test for the Joint Chiefs of Staff,’’ Obama said. “Obviously, there are so many issues that a member of the Joint Chiefs has to deal with, and my paramount obligation is to get the best possible people to keep America safe.
“But I think there’s increasing recognition within the Armed Forces that this is a counterproductive strategy -- ya know, we’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military, some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need,’’ he said. “That doesn’t make us more safe, and what I want are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are making decisions based on what strengthens our military and what is going to make us safer, not ideology.’’
Federal employees should be protected against discrimination as well, he said, “and finally, an area that I’m very interested in is making sure that federal benefits are available to same-sex couples who have a civil union. I think as more states sign civil union bills into law the federal government should be helping to usher in a time when there’s full equality in terms of what that means for federal benefits.’’
Obama also said that he has “for a very long time have been interested in repeal’’ of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Is repeal possible, the magazine asked?
“I don’t know,’’ Obama said, “But my commitment is to try to make sure that we are moving in the direction of full equality, and I think the federal government historically has led on civil rights -- I’d like to see us lead here too.’’
Obama was asked about he and his wife both speaking eloquently about being told to wait their turn, and if they had done that they might not have gone to law school or run for Senate or president. Is that what he is asking same-sex couples to do by favoring civil unions over marriage?
“I don’t ask them that,’’ Obama said. “Anybody who’s been at an LGBT event with me can testify that my message is very explicit -- I don’t think that the gay and lesbian community, the LGBT community, should take its cues from me or some political leader in terms of what they think is right for them. It’s not my place to tell the LGBT community, "Wait your turn." I’m very mindful of Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” where he says to the white clergy, "Don’t tell me to wait for my freedom.''
“So I strongly respect the right of same-sex couples to insist that even if we got complete equality in benefits, it still wouldn’t be equal because there’s a stigma associated with not having the same word, marriage, assigned to it. I understand that, but my perspective is also shaped by the broader political and historical context in which I’m operating.
"And I’ve said this before -- I’m the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born. That doesn’t mean that had I been an adviser to Dr. King back then, I would have told him to lead with repealing an antimiscegenation law, because it just might not have been the best strategy in terms of moving broader equality forward. ‘’
What event or person has most affected his perceptions of the LGBT community, the candidate was asked.
“Well, it starts with my mom, who just always instilled in me a belief that everybody’s of equal worth and a strong sense of empathy -- that you try to see people through their eyes, stand in their shoes,’’ he said. “So I think that applies to how I see all people.
“Somebody else who influenced me, I actually had a professor at Occidental -- now, this is embarrassing because I might screw up his last name -- Lawrence Golden, I think it was. He was a wonderful guy. He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time, but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.’’
He was asked if prejudice against gays is more pervasive in the black community than among white Americans.
“I don’t think it’s worse than in the white community,’’ he replied. “I think that the difference has to do with the fact that the African-American community is more churched and most African-American churches are still fairly traditional in their interpretations of Scripture. And so from the pulpit or in sermons you still hear homophobic attitudes expressed. And since African-American ministers are often the most prominent figures in the African-American community those attitudes get magnified or amplified a little bit more than in other communities….
“I tell you what -- my campaign is premised on trying to reach as many constituencies as possible and to go into as many places as possible, and sometimes that creates discomfort or turbulence. This goes back to your first question.
"If you’re segmenting your base into neat categories and constituency groups and you never try to bring them together and you just speak to them individually -- so I keep the African-Americans neatly over here and the church folks neatly over there and the LGBT community neatly over there -- then these kinds of issues don’t arise.
“The flip side of it is, you never create the opportunity for people to have a conversation and to lift some of these issues up and to talk about them and to struggle with them, and our campaign is built around the idea that we should all be talking.’’