How Voices Are Best Heard

The "Twitter revolution" in Iran–huge protests over the election results, that would have been supressed if not for the way technology can now carry events repressed by those in power out into the larger world–has been amazing to witness this week. The outcome isn't yet clear (and the two choices of leader may not be perceived as all that different in many ways). Still, there is no question that people's brave, dignified, nonviolent protest–especially apparent given worldwide coverage–has made a profound impact in Iran and around the world. Interesting that this same week, as so many of us are riveted by the power of these voices, in the United States, gay and lesbian activists, allies, and friends are searching for a way to raise their voices togther to protest what seems an unjust call by those in power, too. In these stories, a common thread theme is how to raise voices in order to exhort leaders to honor the people's will.

Both during the campaign and as it launched, the Obama administration promised to enact changes and uphold principles its supporters care about deeply. Protecting gay rights was just one of them. So, the administration's brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was both surprising and disturbing. A New York Times editorial this week called upon the administration to find a "new direction" on this issue. Obama has not yet abolished the military ban on gay and lesbian service members–"don't ask, don't tell"–a move he promised to make as a would-be President. Although Lt. Dan Choi, an openly gay, Arabic-speaking linguist, pleaded with President Obama to override Choi's termination, the administration refused (Choi appeared on many news shows last month when his discharge occurred) his request. As Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), the highest ranking retired military officer currently serving in Congress, pointed out on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show at the time, at this point, both within the military and the larger population, "don't ask, don't tell" is not considered a good or necessary policy. The military, its human resources profoundly strained–especially for those with expertise in Arabic–has dismissed 30,000 members due to "don't ask, don't tell." What's more, polls tell the story that at this point sixty-nine percent of the population supports letting openly gay men and lesbian women serve in our military, including a majority of Republicans (58 percent) and conservatives (also 58 percent).

From Jon Aravosis' opinion piece at Salon: "…the White House Web site, once detailing half a page of presidential promises to the gay community, overnight saw those pledges shortened to three simple sentences. Gone were five of the eight previous commitments, including the promises to repeal both Don't Ask Don't Tell and DOMA. Adding to a growing sense of angst, senior White House officials kept telling the media that they weren't sure when, if ever, the president would follow through on his promises to the gay community."

Aravosis writes that the worst part of the Justice Department's brief in regards to DOMA was this: "In that brief, filed on the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia (which outlawed bans on interracial marriage), our own interracial Harvey Milk, not lacking a sense of historical irony, compared our love to incest and pedophilia." Such a long way from calling the law "abhorrent" during his campaign to this statement, absolutely, and many feel especially so for a man whose rise to the Presidency has become–in certain ways–the sweetest fruit of the Civil Rghts Movement to date. Apparently in order to appease gay rights supporters, President Obama signed an administrative memorandum that states some partnership rights will be extended to federal workers in same-sex relationships. Some benefits included are allowing administration personnel to take leave to care for sick partners and requiring that the government recognize partners as household members when determining overseas housing allocations for State Department employees. As the New York Times story points out, what is not included as a benefit is full health care benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers. While the President promised to support legislation to bring these benefits to partners, questions also loomed about whether any of these changes must continue after the Obama presidency.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell wrote about a blog post for the Nation about Obama's blasting absent black fathers during the campaign although his personal experience–biracial boy raised by single white mother, with absent African father–may have turned out very differently had his father been present. Harris-Lacewell argues that honoring–and supporting–all family structures is critical for children's security and success. Without having earned decent wages and received decent benefits, grandparents, for example, are not free to step in and help raise grandchildren (often, grandparents function as essential support systems for single parents). The goal should not be to demonize different family structures, rather to "embrace" different models so all children are supported. She adds, "In order for the children of LGBT couples to have the secure family unit President Obama trumpets we need to have marriage equality." None of this, she argues, takes away from fathers; rather, marriage equality is one way to support "famillies of all kinds."

Whether Obama's motivation for not standing more firmly in favor of gay rights (in terms of actions, that is) is rooted in unacknowledged homophobia or political calculations makes no palpable difference to those who felt they'd shaken his proverbial hand in promise. When the oppostition in Iran charged toward protestors, they simply quietly alerted those around them of what was taking place and sat down. No histrionics, no threats (in the case of gay rights' activists, the main threat seems to be pulling financial support and political endorsement), just standing (sitting) strong. I keep imagining that everyone who believes gay rights are an issue of equality and civil rights needs to find a way–it need not be literal–to sit. I'd like to see us show that kind of calm determination, the kind that seems that much more unassailable because of its diginified conviction. In doing so, we'd be taking notes from others whose ability to reveal such evenness in the face of injustice won this country some essential freedom. All we are doing is looking for more: freedom, justice… more equality.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

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