Did you hear? Earlier this month, the White House hosted a policy briefing for state level LGBT equality organizations about the administration's progress on a number of issues. If you didn't hear about it, you aren't alone. Most of the LGBT community didn't hear about the meeting or the news of the progress the administration was touting until the director of one of the state level participants and the leader of the organizing umbrella organization, the Equality Federation, sent out memos to its members. And when they did, the news the Obama administration wanted the LGBT community to hear got lost in other aspects of the reporting on the event. The meeting is just another example in a long line of instances where the Obama administration can't seem to get it right in connecting with the LGBT community.
If you read DailyKos with any reasonable frequency, you've seen over the last several weeks and months a number of diaries hitting the Rec List dealing with LGBT equality, particularly on marriage equality, California's Proposition 8, the D[enial] of Marriage Act (DOMA), Don't Ask, Don't Tell and sometimes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In almost every instance, the Obama Administration has not been cast in a very favorable light because of particular actions and negligent inactions the administration has taken on these issues.
From one exchange at the end of the policy briefing, we come to find out the administration isn't exactly thrilled by the negative publicity. From one account of the meeting, this particular exchange between Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement (the White House's LGBT liaison) Brian Bond and the executive director of Equality Maryland has managed to, somewhat justifiably so, overshadow the entire rest of the reporting on the meeting:
Bond asserted, "There is still a lot of work to do" before DOMA will be repealed. "Look at the trouble we're having with ENDA." he added. But Bond conceded that there are inconsistencies in President Obama's positions. In response, Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland, stated, "Respectfully, we need President Obama to push for full inclusion of the LGBT community on ENDA, on marriage- we need the full get, not the lesser get. The highest office in the land sets the tone for the whole country." Bond agreed, but expressed frustration at the often intense criticism levied, particularly by bloggers, against an administration that is "99 percent supportive of your issues." (emphasis added)
From the pages of the prominent LGBT blog Pam's House Blend, to the pages of the Advocate magazine, to the reporting of AMERICABlog's gay section, that was the story, right on the heels of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' meltdown castigating the "professional left" for what The Hill described as the White House's "frustrat[ion] by nightly attacks on cable news shows catering to the left, where Obama and top lieutenants like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have been excoriated for abandoning the public option in healthcare reform; for not moving faster to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay; and for failing, so far, to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military."
Bond's comments were as "inartful" as Gibbs' and just as poisonous to the administration's goodwill in the LGBT community.
Part of the reason is, the administration still doesn't "get it" that it can't simply sit on its hands and expect the news they want heard to be disseminated as they want. The expectation they are displaying in this regard is as unreasonable as Sharron Angle's expectation that the media should only ask her the questions she wants to answer.
Equality Federation executive director Toni Broaddus brought up the messaging matter at the meeting. From her interview by the Advocate on the closed door session:
"We did ask, 'Why isn't the administration doing more to let people know about the things we're learning in our briefing today?'" she said. "They acknowledged that they hadn't done a good job of getting that out."
That's been the story of the administration on LGBT matters from day one. Without rehashing the history too much, they were shocked at the level of acrimony their selection of Prop 8 cheerleader extraordinaire Rick Warren to deliver the Inaugural invocation generated in the LGBT community on the heels of the passage of Prop 8 in California, were slow to recognize or acknowledge the anger over the brief defending DOMA that used language the LGBT community considered incendiary, and the slow boiling anger of their repeated defense of DOMA and DADT in several other cases since. Expressions of that anger to the President have been met with mockery and condescension by the administration.
In short, whereas they claim to be "99 percent supportive," that is one hell of a 1% leftover.
Department of inJustice
The problems with the DOJ's handling of the LGBT community even prompted the creation of a LGBT liaison officer in the DOJ. That liaison, Matt Nosanchuk, was hired just over one year ago. Since that time, the DOJ has continued to defend DOMA and DADT over and over in the courts from the Log Cabin Republicans v US and Golinski v OPM cases in California to the Gill and Massachusetts v HHS vs OPM cases in Massachusetts. At a meeting of the National Press Club earlier this year, Nosanchuk repeated the repeatedly debunked myth that "the Justice Department has to defend all of the laws on the books, even if the administration disagrees with particular laws" with Nosanchuk stating "The Department of Justice has a historic and traditional obligation to defend the laws that Congress passes. We don't have the luxury of picking and choosing with laws to enforce."
John Aravosis and Joe Sudbay of AMERICABlog Gay show that simply is not true and how even Clinton, Bush I and Reagan didn't defend certain laws when challenged. Another analysis I read on this said every President since at least Truman has chosen at one point not to defend a law against constitutional challenge. And Aravosis' rundown is certainly not the only evidence that Obama can choose not to defend DOMA and DADT. Within Obama's own administration, we have seen them choose not to enforce certain laws from skirting their obligation under the 1949 Geneva Conventions to prosecute the war crimes of the previous administration to suspending enforcement of provisions of immigration law, to declining to enforce valid anti-narcotics laws as applied to medical marijuana and other state approved but federally prohibited narcotics, to using signing statements to ignore a Federal law he just signed because he thinks a provision is unconstitutional and therefore ignorable without even a judicial declaration to that effect.
The defense of DOMA and DADT in court though aren't the only cases of the administration claiming an obligation to enforce even a law they disagree with. The President has also declined to use the authority explicitly granted to him by Federal law in 10 U.S.C. §12305 to halt discharges under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law pending its repeal, a course of action they had no problem taking without similar legal authorization to widow penalty deportations, a move that Congress rectified well before the end of Napolitano's 2 year suspension of the law in Jun 2009.
This is meant to drive home that the Obama administration and the DOJ aren't exactly popular in the LGBT community right now. One would think that they would want to take every opportunity they could to convey the message they claim to want: "We're on the side of the LGBT community. No, really, we mean it. We're serious."
Poorly executed prior outreach
With their own acknowledged messaging problems, the administration has let several opportunities at building goodwill with the LGBT community pass them by. One such instance came in July when the White House invited 16 members of the LGBT press and blogosphere to the White House for a briefing on very short notice. Of the 16 invited, nine were able to attend and the reactions to the event were less than stellar:
Dr Jillian Weiss of the Bilerico Project:
[...] I don't feel like I walked out with any more information than I walked in with. I already knew that the President was letting the legislative branch get away with ignoring LGBT rights.
I'd like to be able to say I was satisfied with these answers. I'm sure you'd like to say nice things too. But it seems we have a fundamental disagreement with the President as to what his job is. Is it to lead -- or to follow?
Chris Geidner of Metro Weekly's Poliglot:
The meeting was not intended to present us with new developments or legislative strategies, but it was an opportunity for those of us covering the White House's actions to have an extended discussion with one of the most senior people in the administration responsible for advising President Obama on many, if not most, LGBT issues.
The result was a more expansive understanding of how LGBT issues are handled in the White House -- but it was not an altogether satisfying experience.
Lou Chibbaro of the Washington Blade:
Barnes fielded questions from reporters and editors from eight LGBT media outlets at a briefing held in a conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.
In most instances, she reiterated positions expressed in the past by the president or his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, on issues ranging from efforts to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the Defense of Marriage Act to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and an LGBT-inclusive hate crimes bill passed by Congress.
Lisa Keen of Keen News Service:
It was the first time any administration had arranged to deliver such a briefing to LGBT media and take questions, and some lamented that the access has come 18 months into the administration and, thus far, has not included an interview with the president himself.
Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend:
To back up a bit, LGBT reporters have been on the equivalent of a resource blackout with the administration to date, with no high-level policy official focused on ensuring that the wider LGBT community is informed on administration plans or strategy. And this President has not participated in a sit-down interview with LGBT media at all since occupying the White House. And it shows - we've seen mixed messages, dodges on questions (see Robert Gibbs), and onerous surprises like the language of the DOMA brief that came as a slap in the face to the community.
I can't speak for anyone else who attended, but my expectations weren't very high (though for me, forking over $650 out of the Blend's budget for a one-day roundtrip ticket without a guarantee of anything worth reporting was a gamble). You can decide whether it was money well spent.
It should be made clear that Ms. Barnes is not a member of the political team, she is policy, and so any questions about strategy and the elections was off the table. It's kind of unfortunate that, with the mid-terms coming up, that they were not able to scheduled a political meeting on the same day. Perhaps this will be in the offing down the line, since surely this administration has to be concerned about enthusiasm about opening the GayTM and LGBTs getting out to vote in key elections.
Summary of the meeting
Short version: Nothing new was learned, despite numerous attempts to get substantive answers about administration policy; move along to the next PHB post.
Joe Sudbay of AMERICABlog Gay agreed with Dr Weiss' assessment and also noted:
At the end of the meeting, I told Barnes that we should do this again, but she should bring her boss next time because the President hasn't talked to any LGBT media since the campaign.
I think it is particularly telling that the White House summoned these people together just before a holiday break to deliver a policy briefing with no new substance, answering the questions asked, for the most part with a "we've made a statement on that before. You can look it up if you want to know more." Having worked in media relations before (albiet in sports media in college), this is not the way to engender yourself to members of the media. If they wanted to hear substanceless bloviating on LGBT issues they could have watched any replay of a White House Press Conference where Kerry Eleveld asked Robert Gibbs an LGBT related question. The repeated claims that the White House acknowledges the frustration of the LGBT community hasn't translated into a media outreach program to inspire the LGBT media and bloggers to write stories the administration would find favorable. You certainly don't inspire such by wasting people's time regurgitating answers and not providing a deeper understanding of why the administration is taking the tact that it is on LGBT issues.
The meeting with the state level activists also wasn't the best idea in terms of messaging. Whereas national LGBT organizations tend to be focused on a specific issue or segment within the greater LGBT community, the state orgs, while more broad overall than the national ones, tend to actually be more focused on one issue the administration has shown it doesn't want to touch with a ten light year pole: Marriage Equality. It is the issue they often organize around having to battle the constitutional amendments over the last decade or so. In talking about the meeting in her weekly column, Kerry Eleveld wrote:
One of the most contentious issues discussed was President Barack Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
"It was the only time where I felt the temperature go up in the room," Kenny said. "Part of it is that these are the people who have been leading the fight at the state level [against the marriage amendments] so they have passions that are perhaps not reflected by all LGBT people."
"I don’t think [his position] is satisfying to any of us who support full equality for LGBT people," she said. "You can’t support equality for LGBT people but not marriage for LGBT people."
Broaddus added that she really believed certain administration officials were pushing the president to change his position.
"My sense of the marriage issue is that there are many people in the administration who would like to see the president come out for marriage equality and they are conveying that, but it’s just not where he is at the moment," she said.
Which brings me to some suggestions of how the administration could handle things better:
- Get the President in front of a LGBT media reporter or a prominent LGBT blogger, stat. Or better yet, more than one.
One common theme in several of the reactions to the first LGBT media/blogger outreach was the the President's lack of direct communication with LGBT media, choosing instead to communicate through two speeches, one at last year's Stonewall Democratic Fundraiser and the other at the HRC's annual dinner.
The lines of communication with grassroots have been minimal to non-existent with all communication prior to this state level meeting being selective with self selected national LGBT organizations whose intentions have not always been perceived as being genuine by the grassroots community. When HRC deals with the White Hose, there is a strong perception within the LGBT community they are looking out for their own access and status rather than fully advocating the community's needs. And the petty exclusion of one major LGBT organization, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, from a White House meeting on the strategy going forward for DADT just after the State of the Union because SLDN pushed the President too hard on the DADT repeal effort really made the White House look bad.
He needs to start talking to us and listening to us, not with highly parsed speeches meant more to solidify the President's quai-pro-equality credentials, but with real discussions on the issues. Platitudes don't win Congressional battles. They should have learned that from healthcare.
I'm sure any one of the respected members of the LGBT press such as the Advocate's Kerry Eleveld, Keen News Service head and former Blade editor Lisa Keen or Metro Weekly's Chris Geidner would be willing to do an interview with you. But you are going to have to be prepared and actually answer the hard questions the administration has been dodging for 19 months.
- Show some spine on a LGBT issue
Show America you have a spine on some issue important to the LGBT community at least once before the election by doing something on that issue that isn't a gimme, no political cost, no risk move. Stop being the sedentary slob in the recliner in front of the TV that never gets up. We're taking away the remote control. If you want the LGBT media and grassroots to change their tune in their reporting, you're going to have to stand up, walk over to the TV and change the channel yourself. We're not going to do it for you.
You can take your pick on the issue. I don't think it really matters too much which of the biggies you choose: issue a stop loss order to stop the discharges, announce that you've read Judge Walker's ruling and have changed your mind on marriage equality, or put on a full court press to actually pass ENDA in this session of Congress before the possibility of passage is closed, perhaps for years to come.
- Work to get your message across
Stop thinking that simply doing a few good small things for the LGBT community is going to make the rounds and that we'll think better of you for them. Hasn't been happening and won't happen. Be proactive, not reactive.
Y'all like to spot out how the President is the most pro-LGBT President in U.S. History, a distinction that is dubious considering the only legitimate competition he has for that title is the guy that signed both DOMA and DADT into law. It is as meaningful as winning the award for least racist U.S. Senator in the history of the state of Mississippi. You can win that simply be refraining from using the n-word more than once a month and using a polite tone when you refer to an adult African-American male as "boy."
I can even suggest a specific example of something quite good your administration, and specifically the DOJ, did for the LGBT community that should have made more news than it did and would have if the administration had taken a more proactive approach.
Last week I learn, via Twitter of all places, from an LGBT legal organization, Lambda Legal, about the administration filing amicus brief in the case of two siblings suing the school district in which they lived because of the anti-gay harassment and discrimination they encountered. I had read some of the original case filings a while back. The case is at the stage where motions for summary judgment are being entertained and the government asked the court for permission to add its $0.02 on three specific points where the government disagrees with the way the defense interprets the laws in question, key among them, the Title IX Education Amendments of 1972.
That may not sound like a big deal, but it actually stands at the nexus anti-harassment and anti-bullying in schools policy and LGBT politics. It gives the DOJ a chance to redeem their credentials in the LGBT community. It gives the administration the opportunity to have a public policy discussion on bullying in school and the serious educational and health problems (including dramatically higher suicide rates) wrought by the increasing prevalence of bullying. It gives the administration the opportunity to play politics and push for two bills that haven't moved in this session of Congress, the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and build so momentum towards getting them considered in the next Congress, recognizing it is probably too late for this one to consider them.
They should have gathered Matt Nosanchuk from DOJ, their DOE's safe school czar, the openly gay former director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Kevin Jennings, and some White House political spokesperson together and put them in a room with the invited LGBT press and announced the amicus filing and used the opportunity to push for the SSIA and SNDA so bullying is addressed in schools and lawsuits like this become less likely in the future. You have someone for the legal perspective that can talk about the importance of Title IX and the equal protection clause to insuring LGBT children are free and safe from harassment and bullying. You have someone with the expert knowledge of the affects of bullying that can talk about the increasing rate of suicide among teens in general and the particularly disturbing numbers when one looks at the LGBT teen segment, and can talk about the lack of support mechanisms in the schools like Gay-Straight Alliances clubs (which is also a subject of the lawsuit) or teachers & counselors that are trained in dealing with the special needs of LGBT students or trained to recognize and respond to acts of harassment. And you have someone that can be political about the announcement (whereas the other two really can't) and push the administration's desire for these two bills to be passed into law because they will protect all students, not just the LGBT ones.
If the administration is afraid of questions on other LGBT issues, being a press conference for a very specific issue, questions on other LGBT issues could tastefully be deflected with a "Today we're focusing on what we can do to make our schools safer for all students, including the LGBT ones." You get some positive stories out of the LGBT media and bloggers and start restoring some credibility on LGBT issues. More importantly, this is not an issue where the administration would sound like a broken record pointing to previous statements rather than actually answering people's questions. It would be putting themselves out there on an issue that doesn't normally get much press.
In conclusion, I find it odd that we're having to give messaging advice to a group of people who two years ago were coming off one of the most organized, well heeled campaigns in American history, defeating a seasoned primary opponent that a year earlier had already been ordained in many circles as the party's nominee. But the signs of their tone deafness on dealing with LGBT issues has been there from the start and has only seemed to grow to the extent I am not hopeful about the prospect of them changing. I think it goes to Jon Stewart's mocking of their campaign signs: "Yes We Can, But That Doesn't Necessarily Mean We're Going To."