Obama expectations for LGBT leadership held close to vest

By Lisa Keen

Keen News Service

The LGBT movement seems determined not to make the same mistakes with the administration of President-Elect Barack Obama that it made with President Bill Clinton back in 1992. There is a palpable caution against laying forth in public an ambitious list of demands and expectations are buckled close to the vest.

And yet Barack Obama has promised more support to the LGBT community than Clinton ever did; was elected by a margin 2 million votes larger than Clinton was during his initial step into the White House; and has expressed unqualified support for undoing two anti-gay laws which Clinton helped put in place.

But starting with Obama's first high-level appointment during the past week, the community has essentially been put on notice that the door to the Oval Office will not likely be opened wide enough to accommodate gay civil rights in the new president's first year.

Obama announced the appointment of former Clinton senior adviser Rahm Emanuel to be his Chief of Staff. Emanuel racked up a perfect 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign for each of his three terms as a U.S. representative from Chicago. But longtime gay political activists still remember him as an obstacle, during Clinton's first year in office, to their efforts to end discrimination against gays in the military.

In his 1996 book, Stranger Among Friends, longtime gay Democratic activist David Mixner, the most influential gay activist in relation to the Clinton White House at the time, described a scheduled meeting he had with Emanuel at the White House that lasted only about 10 to 15 minutes and was riddled with interruptions.

"Each time he returned his attention to me," wrote Mixner, "it was as though he were dealing with a house servant. I was certainly not a peer, and he clearly hated being bothered about the problems of the march."

Mixner had sought to advise President Clinton on what he could do for the 1993 national gay civil rights march on Washington. The march had run into some resistance from the National Park Service, which was holding up a permit for the march on the National Mall, claiming the marchers would destroy the grass. During his brief meeting with Emanuel, said Mixner, Emanuel suggested "some of your rich boys" in the movement should be tapped to pay for the grass.

Mixner said he told Emanuel he didn't think the movement should have to put up "that kind of money simply to exercise our right to petition our government."

"We have to raise millions as it is for AIDS and to fight these damned [anti-gay ballot] initiatives," said Mixner, referring to Colorado Amendment 2 and other anti-gay ballot measures which were springing up all over the country at the time. "We can only raise so much."

"Geffen can do it," said Emanuel, according to Mixner's account. He was referring to openly gay movie mogul and multi-millionaire David Geffen, a friend of President Clinton. "So can several others. They'll want to please the president." Emanuel then suggested the money could be put up as a sort of bond. Mixner said he'd make some calls to see if there was support for that idea.

Later, when President Clinton said publically that he "wouldn't rule out" an idea to allow the military to segregate openly gay service members from straight ones, Mixner tried again to contact the White House -this time for an explanation.

"We don't have to explain or justify our actions to you," said Emanuel, according to Mixner. "If the President of the United States never does another thing for you people, you should get on your knees and be thankful. He's already done more for you all than anyone. How dare you question his actions!" Mixner said Emanuel ultimately finished the phone conversation by saying "I will not talk to you anymore" and hanging up. Emanuel, he said, "made it very clear that he would decide what would be recommended to the President."

From his point of view, Emanuel told the Wall Street Journal, Mixner "unjustly criticized" Clinton.

"If somebody criticizes the president," he said, "then I think they are personal non grata."

Though others also recalled Emanuel as an obstacle in their communications with the president, Mixner's anger has softened. When asked about Obama's choice of Emanuel for Chief of Staff, Mixner called him an "excellent choice."

"He should just remember it is sixteen years later and a lot of things have changed since then," said Mixner. "I am sure he is aware of it."

Much changed when Emanuel became a member of the U.S. Congress. He's voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and for including sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crimes prevention legislation. He's voted against an anti-gay marriage amendment and adopted an inclusive non-discrimination policy for his Congressional office. And he helped secure $1.25 million in funding for the Chicago LGBT community center.

That record in the Congress has gone a long way to heal the wounds of his Clinton years.

"I remember at the time I thought he didn't like us, that he was just putting up with these gay people," said Tanya Domi who, during the Clinton years, was head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Military Freedom Project. "But his voting record [in Congress] has been good and now I think he was just trying to protect the president."

As Obama's Chief of Staff, he'll have even more power.

But ironically, it's not the Chief of Staff that most LGBT leaders mention when they are asked to rattle off the most important appointments they'll be looking at over the next several weeks and months. Instead, they name positions such as Attorney General, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Defense, and White House domestic policy adviser. Less commonly cited, but positions which also have considerable influence over LGBT-related matters include many within the Department of Justice, including the Solicitor General, who makes decisions about the government's position on important cases before the U.S. Supreme Court; the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, the Special Counsel for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, and the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization. Also important are appointments within the Department of Education.

LGBT leaders are also very interested in how many openly LGBT people the new president appoints and to what positions. Many in the community were heartened soon after President Bush took office in 2001 with his appointment of an openly gay man, Scott Evertz, as director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. But by re-election time, the list of openly gay appointees under Bush numbered only 16 and half of those was on an AIDS Advisory Council. President Clinton appointed at least 50 openly gay appointees. (Both the Clinton and Bush administrations claimed to have appointed more but did not make public their names.) But Clinton's claim to fame was naming both the first openly gay appointee to a position that required Senate confirmation (Roberta Achtenberg as an assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development) and the first openly gay ambassador (James Hormel to Luxembourg).

In hopes of improving chances for openly LGBT candidates to win appointments, the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute formed a "Presidential Appointments Projects" to solicit and vet applications from members of the community and then submit them to the new administration. More than 1300 people have applied. The group is also hosting a four-day conference in Washington, D.C., early next month to convene LGBT leaders in a discussion of appointments and what the new administration means for the movement.

In the meantime, some say Obama's choice of former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to head up his transition team is a very good sign for LGBT people. One of those people is Winnie Stachelberg, a former political director at the Human Rights Campaign. When anti-gay politicians in the U.S. Senate were holding up James Hormel's appointment as ambassador, she said, "John Podesta was the first person I went to, and he immediately got it, and went to work on it." Stachelberg is now a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, where Podesta is president.

�2008 Keen News Service

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