Hero of the Month: President Obama (with caveats)

Despite some major ambivalence (see below), Barack Obama is my hero of the month. He and his administration deserve credit for finally deciding to stop defending DOMA and for taking the position that laws aimed at gays and lesbians should be viewed with suspicion.

The administration’s move was bold, unexpected and will be hugely helpful in future legal battles. In every legal filing against DOMA we can now hammer home that the executive branch does not believe in the constitutionality of the law. And in every case involving sexual orientation, we can emphasize the Department of Justice’s position that laws targeting LGBs should be subjected to a heightened scrutiny on a par with laws targeting racial groups and women.

Now let me lay out the caveats. Just because I think Obama deserves credit this month does not mean I am willing to forgive and forget the past two years. The man has driven me to distraction. On LGBT rights, he has been like a gifted college student who skips class half the time, turns in crappy term papers and then tries to talk you into giving him an “A” out of a sense of his own entitlement. The difference, of course, is that the stakes here not only involve his grades, but also the civil rights of a significant portion of the population.

It is hard for me to move beyond the cluelessness, timidity and active disregard for LGBT concerns that Obama has shown over the past few years. Remember how his campaign featured the infamous ex-gay Donnie McClurkin in its gospel tour? Remember how Obama justified his opposition to marriage equality by professing that “God is in the mix” during a debate with Prop 8 supporter Rick Warren? Remember how our “fierce advocate” then selected Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration? Remember the administration’s failure to speak out against the anti-marriage referendum in Maine? Or how a Bush administration holdover was permitted to help write the infamous DOMA brief that used offensive anti-gay rhetoric?

Admittedly, the Obama administration taken a number of helpful steps in support of LGBT rights. He enacted hate crimes legislation, secured limited benefits for gay federal employees, applied the coup de grace to the HIV travel ban and appears to have worked behind the scenes to gain Pentagon support for the repeal of DADT, among other things. However, many of the LGBT initiatives Obama touted were weak tea, as John has explained. As for DADT, Obama was AWOL at crunch time. Others did the heavy lifting and Obama was fortunate they succeeded.

I don’t know why Obama suddenly became emboldened now with DOMA. Perhaps the lack of political fall-out from the DADT repeal did the trick. Perhaps he saw an opportunity to perform some political jiu-jitsu by dumping a culture war issue in the laps of Republicans at a time when they would rather be focusing on the economy. Presumably, Obama recognized as a Con Law scholar that there was no way to justify DOMA under the Constitution. Whatever the reason, I am glad he made this move. I hope he continues to evolve on marriage equality. Better late than never.

Liz Newcomb is an attorney by day and committed LGBT activist by night and weekend. She has worked as a researcher at the Williams Institute. While in law school at UCLA, she was Articles Editor of the LGBT law journal. Liz lives in West Hollywood with her wife, Lynne. They are one of the 18,000 California same-sex couples who got married during the summer before proposition 8 passed. Liz has lived in California for over 20 years and brings a left coast perspective to AMERICAblog.

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