January 11, 2010


Gays vs. Democratic Party: They’re fond of your checkbooks — and deaf to your demands for equal rights. What will it take for the Democratic Party to step up? (James Kirchick, February 2010, The Advocate)

Szekeres’s experience is illustrative of the problem that many gay people, one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies alongside African-Americans and Jews, have vis-à-vis their relationship with the Democratic Party. “We give money to get something,” he says. “We don’t give money to get warm fuzzies. If I wanted that, I’d give money to the cat shelter.”

In the wake of the Maine defeat, a coterie of liberal bloggers and activists called for a temporary moratorium on DNC donations. The fledgling movement, which has adopted the motto “Don’t Ask, Don’t Give” and has attracted the likes of legendary gay rights activist David Mixner, hopes to discourage donations to the party until the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of both “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. In so doing, these activists are hoping to reshape—if not completely upset—the relationship between gays and the Democratic Party.

The gay rights movement hasn’t always had a vested interest in mainstream political organizing. Most of the influential figures in early gay liberation were radicals who wanted to upend the American political and social system, not join it. The sentiment was reciprocated, as hardly anyone in the Republican or Democratic party wanted anything to do with homosexuals. Most gay activists had little choice but to spend nearly all of the 1970s as political outsiders.

But with the rise of the new right and Moral Majority in the latter part of that decade, homosexuality itself became a political issue and gay people themselves targets. If activists had earlier been content theorizing and exhorting on the political margins, they now had to plead their case to the general public. In 1978 gays in California and around the country rallied to help defeat the Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gay people from teaching in the public schools. Today, supporters of the DNC boycott point to President Carter’s cursory but effective opposition to the Briggs Initiative and say that, at the very least, is what President Obama and the Democratic Party could and should be doing in support of gay rights.

Several years later, AIDS pushed homosexuality to the forefront of the American consciousness and revitalized gay activism as a life-or-death proposition. In 1992, Bill Clinton was the first major-party presidential nominee to openly court gays as a political constituency, raising millions of dollars from them in the process. While his administration saw remarkable progress in terms of gay political visibility, it also led to a series of disastrous setbacks, from the enactment of DADT to the passage of DOMA.

According to Aravosis, a Democratic political consultant who helped initiate the DNC boycott on his blog, the current political atmosphere is beginning to “feel like 1993, but not in a good way.” Then, as now, gays were thrilled at the prospect of a fresh-faced young president who spoke about their issues in a humane and understanding fashion. Like Clinton, Obama seems to get gay concerns, and he’s personally comfortable around gay people. Although they offered pleasant speeches and frequent photo opportunities, both the Clinton and early Obama administrations provided little in terms of tangible legislative progress. And as the party apparatus tends to fall in line when its man is in the White House, the DNC has assumed the role of blocking back for the president’s inaction.

With the 2010 midterm congressional election looking increasingly perilous for progressives, thus making the imperative to pass pro-gay legislation before then all the more urgent, a picture is beginning to emerge of a Democratic president and political party that are, as Szekeres describes them, happy to take money and votes from gay people but less inclined to spend political capital on their behalf.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2010 6:25 PM
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