I was overwhelmed by kids and pals and motorcycles and beer over the weekend—more or less in that order, which is good—so I was only getting snatches of public commentary about President Obama's speech on gay issues at the Human Rights Dinner Saturday night.
So I experienced the thing like most Americans, I guess.
Yet, I had a family member in D.C. rallying over the weekend and I have a pretty big circle of other friends and family to whom these issues have real, day to day consequences. (I did play on a women's football team, you'll recall.)
So I was really interested to hear the reaction to the speech, which I had allowed myself to hope would be a landmark event, like Obama's tremendously substantive and wise speech on race, back in 2008.
All I was hearing in the wake of the speech, though, were pundits' perspectives on strongly Obama or didn't promise to end "don't-ask, don't tell." The speech itself was being thrown out; only the underlying policy was being considered.
So I figured: The speech must have been pretty lame. Reading it this morning, though, I came across some pretty strong passages:
It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience for African Americans petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.
My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians—whether in the office or on the battlefield. You will see a time in which we as a nation finally recognize relationships between two men and two women as just as real and admirable as relationships between a man and a woman. You will see a nation that's valuing and cherishing these families as we build a more perfect union—a union in which gay Americans are an important part. I am committed to these goals. And my administration will continue fighting to achieve them.
Tonight, somewhere in America, a young person, let's say a young man, will struggle and fail to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he's held as long as he can remember. Soon, perhaps, he will decide it's time to let that secret out. What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us—on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.
I believe the future is bright for that person For while there will be setbacks and bumps along the road, the truth is that our common ideals are far stronger than any division that some might sow. These ideals, when voiced by generations of citizens, are what made it possible for me to stand here today. These ideals are what made it possible for the people in this room to live freely and openly when for most of history that would have been inconceivable. … That's the promise we're called to fulfill. Day by day, law by law, changing mind by mind, that is the promise we are fulfilling.
That's a pretty good speech. And, contrary to the claims of Obama haters, giving good speeches that say the right things to domestic and international audiences is a huge portion of a president's job. (For instance, we don't know much about Reagan's back-channel negotiations with Gorbachev, we remember and give credit to his words, "evil empire," and "tear down this wall.")
But if this speech didn't move even its allies to say any more than, "We'll just have to fuckin' see when he repeals 'don't ask don't tell,'" then we really are entering a new phase in the arch of this national Obama phenomenon that began in 2004.
A master communicator like Obama must sense it as surely as we do: Some rubber, one of these days soon, must meet some road.
Tom Braxton says
It’s ironic that political opponents refer to Obama’s public-speaking talent as evidence that he’s unqualified/shallow/vapid (pick one or more), while Reagan is glowingly referred to as The Great Communicator. Of course good speeches are part of the president’s job; the bully pulpit and all that.
Doubly ironic, as you point out, that even political supporters miss the forest as they examine the veins on the leaves on the trees. Maybe they’ve been spoiled after hearing well-crafted words from him for so long.
Whether Jon Favreau or someone else wrote the original draft of his remarks, we know from Obama’s history that the thoughts and phrasing are his. Equal rights for GLBT citizens will happen, and we’re getting there, but it takes action *and* words at the tip of the plow to reach that place.
I’m glad to hear a political leader who can think and speak in complete sentences.
David Murray says
To be clear, Tom, I’m not criticizing people for putting pressure on Obama, or for expressing dissatisfaction with the speed of progress.
As Obama himself points out, when you’re the one waiting for equal marriage rights or the right to serve one’s country in the military without jumping through impossible psycho-social hoops to do so, patience isn’t politeness, it’s a kind of suicide.
Or, as my copywriter mother wrote in that civil rights add 40 years ago, over the picture of the sleeping child, “If you feel sure Civil Rights is moving fast enough, try to imagine your child waking up Negro tomorrow morning.”
Still. It IS good to hear the president say these things–about the equivalency of gay rights and black rights, about gay relationship being just as “admirable” as straight ones, about the 17-year-old boy and his secret–because it’s hard to imagine another president ever quite being able to take them back.
You’re right about the need for action. But what makes this whole issue so difficult (as was/is the case with black rights) is that changing government policy is one thing, but the end game rests in changing hearts and minds. And you can only start to do that by changing the tone and language of the conversation. That is why it’s so valuable for a sitting president to give a speech like this, and yet somewhat disheartening that such a speech is still a big deal.
The day you hear a president from the other side of the political spectrum deliver a speech like this – that’s when you’ll know some progress has been made.
David Murray says
Well, and that gets complicated too, Reuben, because you can argue, especially with this issue, that tons of progress HAS been made. I interviewed a guy who was a gay teenager in the late 1950s.
He said, “You knew it was taboo and you knew it was you.”
That line stuck with me. The situation is still like that in some places in the U.S. (and presumably Canada), but most gay kids and grownups have places to go where they can find acceptance–and communities they can join where they can find everything else.
So there’s been tremendous progress on this issue. It’s time for some more.
Oh, absolutely there has been progress. But there is still so much further to go. And that applies here in Canada as well. Sure, we’ve dealt with gay marriage here and the world didn’t end. But that doesn’t mean all is well. That the state acknowledges your marriage doesn’t mean your neighbours will.
My wife hosts a weekly radio talk show about parenting. The topic this past weekend was how to handle it when your kid tells you he or she is gay. While her expert guest acknowledged that conversation has gotten easier for kids and their parents, some of the stories she shared clearly demonstrated how much work is still to be done.
That’s a pretty strong speech. Just think how many country leaders in the world could give such a speech.
I hope a president of my country (Poland) will be able (and will not be afraid) to say something like that someday. That would say a lot about my society. Today a president speaking like Obama would commit a political suicide.
David Murray says
That’s interesting to hear, Roman. Among EU countries, where is Poland on this issue? Less tolerant of homosexuality than most countries? Somewhere in the middle?
I don’t know any specific comparative data, but Poland is rather among those more homophobic countries within EU. My wife has researched these issues for a several years so I can quote her article:
– Lesbians and gays in Poland are visible in public as a community not for a long time. One of reasons for it is that Poland until 1989, for almost half a century, has been a communist country that homosexuality didn’t officially exist.
– For a few years one of a declared goals for gay and lesbian organizations is a possibility of formal legalization of same-sex couples. Activists don’t demand to allow gays and lesbians for marriages, they expect only a possibility of partnership legalization: “Gays and lesbians don’t want to interfere in the Catholic church dogmas”.
– The latest Polish social survey CBOS (2005) shows that in most of Poles opinions homosexuality is a deviation from a norm and only 4% treat it as a normal behavior. As much as 78% of respondents agreed with a statement that gay and lesbian couples in their intimate relationship should not be allowed to show their lifestyle in public. Many would like to interfere in privacy—42% said that the law shouldn’t allow for homosexual sex intercourses.
So it’s not strange I’m really impressed with Obama’s words.
David Murray says
Wow, Roman, thanks for sharing all that. (And thanks to your wife.) All at once it makes perfect sense and is amazing and strange to hear.