Reaction to President Obama's
hesitation to move on gay rights issues has reached a breaking point,
possibly threatening the backing he has enjoyed from gay, lesbian,
bisexual and transgender groups in the past.
The brink arrived last week when a
brief filed in federal court by the Obama administration in support
of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was publicized. In the brief,
Obama's Justice Department agitated gay groups not only for defending
DOMA, the 1996 law that allows states to ignore legal gay marriages
performed elsewhere and defines marriage as a heterosexual union for
federal agencies, but also for using outdated, anti-gay arguments.
During the campaign Obama called the
law “abhorrent” and promised he would repeal the law.
“If elected, I would call on Congress
to enact legislation that would repeal DOMA and ensure that the over
1,100 federal legal rights and benefits currently provided on the
basis of marital status are extended to same-sex couples in civil
unions and other legally recognized unions,” he told gay weekly The
On Friday, the gay blogosphere erupted
over the president's broken promise.
Prominent blogger John Arovosis hit
hard at the document in a blog post at AmericaBlog.com,
calling it “despicable, and gratuitously homophobic.”
“It reads as if it were written by
one of George Bush's top political appointees,” Arovosis said.
“Obama didn't just argue a technicality about the case, he argued
that DOMA is reasonable. That DOMA is constitutional. That DOMA
wasn't motivated by anti-gay animus.”
The Obama administration attempted
damage control on Sunday, trotting out John Berry, the highest
ranking openly gay official in the administration, to respond in an
interview with gay monthly The
Advocate. But Berry's convoluted statements only served to
fan the fire further.
Berry, who heads the Office of
Personnel Management, reiterated that the president is committed to
repeal of DOMA, but that the administration cannot cherry pick which
laws to defend, and promised repeal “before the sun sets on this
“This president took a solemn oath to
uphold the Constitution of the United States and he does not get to
decide and choose which laws he enforces. He has to enforce the laws
that have been enacted appropriately and that he has inherited.”
“[W]e want to repeal the Defense of
Marriage Act,” Berry added. “Now, I'm not going to pledge –
nor is the president – that this is going to be done by some
certain date. The pledge and the promise is that this will be done
before the sun sets on this administration.”
Berry also spoke of a broader gay and
lesbian legislative agenda that includes passage of the Hate Crimes
bill, repeal of “don't ask, don't tell” – the law that bans
open gay military service – and ENDA, the gay employment
Gay activists and bloggers called
Berry's insistence that the administration must defend DOMA a lie,
and viewed his “before the sun sets” comment as suggesting the
administration had just punted gay rights legislation into the
president's second term.
Berry also contradicted himself, at one
point saying the administration is hopeful the Hate Crimes bill
currently before the Senate will pass this week, but later says “We
don't have the votes to do Hate Crimes right now.” Massachusetts
Senator Ted Kennedy's Hate Crimes bill (S909) has attracted 43
co-sponsors, when the bill needs 60 votes for passage.
By Monday the issue reached a boiling
point as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest GLBT
rights advocate, called on the president to intervene, and bloggers
began calling for desertion of the Democratic Party.
“[T]his brief would not have seen the
light of day if someone in your administration who truly recognized
our humanity and equality had weighed in with you,” Joe Solmonese,
president of HRC, said in a letter addressed to the president.
“As an American, a civil rights
advocate, and a human being, I hold this administration to a higher
standard than this brief. In the course of your campaign, I became
convinced – and I still want to believe – that you do, too.”
“We call on you to put your promises
into action and send legislation repealing DOMA to congress,”
Gay bloggers hit harder, urging gay,
lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to uproot from the
Democratic Party altogether.
“With Democratic friends like these,
God helps us,” wrote respected gay activist David
Mixner, who said he would not be attending a June 26 DNC gay and
lesbian fundraiser featuring Vice President Joe Biden and co-chaired
by Congress' three openly gay representatives: Barney Frank of
Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Jared Polis of
The frayed nerves come after a string
of missteps by the Obama administration have left gay and lesbian
voters with buyers remorse. Obama's pick of anti-gay pastor Rev.
Rick Warren to give the nation's prayer at his inauguration ceremony
drew heavy protest in December. More recently anger has simmered
over inaction on repealing the military's ban on open gay service,
“don't ask, don't tell,” and the convoluted, even contradictory,
messages being offered on the issue by the Pentagon and White House.
“We want to believe; give us a
reason,” Mixner said.