For Gay Rights, The Honeymoon Is Over

gay marriage protest For Gay Rights, The Honeymoon Is Over
Same-sex marriage supporters marching on Washington in 2009. (Photo: Getty)

On Sunday, as Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senator Chuck Schumer and over 400 other guests looked on, Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell married John Banta, his partner of over three decades. For Mr. O’Donnell, the wedding was the culmination of a more-than-four-year fight—which included numerous lawsuits and the introduction of five bills to the State Legislature—that finally resulted in same-sex marriage’s finally being legalized in New York last June.

“I began this battle when Eliot Spitzer was elected governor,” Mr. O’Donnell told The Observer. “I used to wake up every day thinking about how many votes I had or didn’t have. Now it’s like, what do I do now?”

As New York both literally and figuratively moves on from the marriage equality fight, gay rights activists are looking to see same-sex marriage become legal in other states. They also have a whole host of other demands with respect to support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, not to mention workplace discrimination. With the fractious climate in the current American electoral landscape and the unique nature of the gay rights voting bloc, they may have an uphill battle to accomplish these goals.
It’s difficult to quantify the precise number of gay residents in the United States because the census counts only households reporting as same-sex couples. This leaves out single gay people as well as straight gay rights supporters. That being said, the gay rights contingent is still clearly smaller than the blocs supporting religious or racial minority groups. In the most recent census two years ago, the government found each state has an average of just 0.773 percent of households reporting as gay couples.

However many gay citizens there are, unlike other blocs they are not united in terms of class, racial or gender identity. Beyond the marriage issue, there isn’t necessarily a single unifying cause for the gay bloc to get behind.

Kerry Lux Eleveld, a writer who covered the White House for gay magazine The Advocate during the first two years of the Obama administration, pointed out that it is “difficult to speak with authority about the concerns of gay voters because of how diverse they are. It’s not a single set of concerns.”

Despite their relatively small numbers and lack of a single issue, Ms. Eleveld said supporters of gay rights have managed to remain influential by being vocal and politically engaged.

“I think the LGBT voting bloc is a powerful force in many ways,” Ms. Eleveld said. “In terms of voting, as well as pamphleting, canvassing, volunteering and also in terms of donations.”

During the 2008 election, President Obama received nearly $140,000 from organizations associated with gay and lesbian issues. Last May, Politico reported the president’s re-election was “banking on gay donors to make up the cash it’s losing from other groups of wealthy supporters who have been alienated and disappointed” by President Obama’s first term. The president, perhaps mindful of this fact, included 15 gay people on his finance committee compared with just one in 2008. So far in his first term, President Obama has repealed the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, called for the repeal of the federal ban on same-sex marriage and pushed the Office of Personnel Management to rewrite regulations banning discrimination of transgender federal workers.

Though President Obama may be counting on gay voters, many of them don’t seem to feel they can count on him. In June, the president faced large protests from crowds eager to see him do more to promote same-sex marriage outside a fund-raiser for gay supporters in New York.

According to Ms. Eleveld, while President Obama has done a lot to support the concerns of gay rights voters, there’s a lot more that could be done for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens at the federal level.

“The administration, in some cases, has been responsive and has had a good record on LGBT concerns so far, but there’s always more that President Obama and the White House could do,” Ms. Eleveld said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Obama could help move the conversation forward on marriage equality nationwide, but there’s a very large portion of the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender community that, their number-one concern heading into the Obama administration was a Fair Employment Act and advancing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It’s something that really could be advanced now if the president used his executive authority and issued an executive order.”

An executive order barring discrimination against transgender federal workers would be much harder for subsequent administrations to reverse than the Office of Personnel Management’s rewritten regulations. While the gay marriage debate captivated the attention of the American people with celebrity supporters and, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last fall, nearly 46 percent of voters in favor of marriage equality, the issues facing transgender people and the employment discrimination debate are much less widely discussed.

“The vast majority of Americans don’t know that gays and lesbians can still be fired in 29 states because of their sexual orientation and that transgender Americans can get fired in more than 30 states simply for their gender identity without any legal recourse,” Ms. Eleveld said. “I think there’s still a lot of education and awareness that needs to be promoted on behalf of transgender issues.”

Election year politics means President Obama needs to appeal to swing voters and turn red states blue, which may make him even less likely than he’s been in the past to cater to the needs of gay rights supporters. Assemblyman O’Donnell, who said he advises lawmakers in other states considering same-sex marriage law, acknowledged that supporting gay causes can be difficult for politicians.

“I undertook this in the political process, I got some bruises for it,” he said. “Trust me, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, but you can get it accomplished.”

For her part, Ms. Eleveld thinks the president would be wise to lean on gay supporters for his re-election campaign.

“From an electoral standpoint, this is, generally speaking, a very loyal and progressive voting bloc for Democrats, but votes aren’t the only thing that matters. This is a group of people that certainly put in a lot of time and energy into volunteering. … It’s also a group that has donated a lot of money to the Democratic Party,” Ms. Eleveld said. “I think one of the lessons from the 2010 midterms is that you absolutely have to motivate your base in order to fare well at the polls. I don’t think you can go for the middle at the exclusion of your base. That was an absolute problem for the Democrats at the midterms.”

Based on President Obama’s reported reliance on donations from gay and lesbian supporters, this may indeed be his strategy.

Locally, gay rights supporters may have an easier time since, with marriage equality passed here in New York, they’re focused on initiatives for youth that aren’t necessarily specifically gay causes.

Yetta Kurland, a prominent civil rights attorney in Manhattan and vice president of New York’s chapter of the Stonewall Democrats, said she believes the gay bloc in the Empire State needs to “focus on ensuring
proper accomodations for homeless youth” because “a disproportionate number of those children and youth are LGBT.”

Ms. Kurland also said it’s important to launch education initiatives for parents and students to help keep LGBT youth out of shelters. Mr. O’Donnell agrees that a focus on promoting tolerance is crucial.

“Yes, we have an LGBT teenage population that needs a lot of attention and shelters are obviously first and foremost on that list, but bullying has become very, very important. It is those kids who are not gender conformant who are most likely the targets,” he said. “If you can work seriously on reducing the bullying you may be able to prevent some of that homelessness from occurring, you may prevent kids from running away.”

Mr. O’Donnell authored the anti-bullying Dignity for All Students Act in the Assembly, but he said there’s still much more that needs to be done.

“The next step of Dignity will have to be expanding it, because it doesn’t apply to colleges, which I think it should and there’s also the question of cyberbullying,” he said.

Mr. O’Donnell also agrees that parents must be educated to prevent children from becoming runaways because their families are intolerant of their sexuality.

“You hear these tragedies every day where a kid gets thrown in front of a train, or jumps out of a window, or slices themselves up because of what’s happening to their sense of value and worth,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “Even though Dignity was monumental, there’s still more work that needs to be done.”

5 thoughts on “For Gay Rights, The Honeymoon Is Over

  1. Yes, he must be reelected because the alternative is so worse. BUT Mr. Obama did not repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, CONGRESS did—and with very little actual help from him. Just one week before the final vote, charter DADT opponent and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin told reporters that the President was not doing enough. And the SOLE person responsible for the fact that a Republican successor could bring back the ban is Barack Obama because of his inexplicable and unforgivable successful fight to overturn the ruling in the Log Cabin court case that such discrimination is unconstitutional. No putting that genie back in the proverbial bottle. But here are nine things Mr. Obama could do TODAY without the need for approval by Congress—and no to little possible damage to his reelection. Gay leaders have been asking him to act on most of these since he was sworn in.

    Order that the federal government not do business with any company that does
    not have LGBT nondiscrimination policies, as, e.g., the city of San Francisco
    did YEARS ago.

    Order the Pentagon to extend to gay & lesbian service members the same
    kinds of protections against harassment and discrimination IN the military that
    blacks, women, et al., have under the Military Equal Opportunity Program. [This
    would correct the inequality he CREATED when he backed the Pentagon’s demand
    that the original repeal bill, which he promised to personally fight for, be

    Order the Pentagon to extend to gay military couples ALL benefits not banned by
    DOMA such as access to military family housing. Again, had he not gutted the
    original repeal bill, the DOD could not get away with what even THEY have
    admitted is ARBITRARY discrimination. 

    Order the Pentagon to retroactively pay eligible discharged gays the money they
    were arbitrarily denied simply because they were gay [that would negate the
    need for the class action suit against him by the ACLU that he’s let his DOJ
    Order the Pentagon to stop harassing discharged gays for repayment of so-called
    “unearned” enlistment bonuses, etc.
    Apologize to all of those discharged from the military [including the some 800
    needlessly discharged on his watch] just as his head of the OPM apologized to
    Kameny for his firing as a government astronomer even though it happened over
    half a century ago and under another President.
    Order Immigration not to deport foreign born partners of gay Americans [as they
    led us to believer they were going to do].
    Award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny—which
    he should have done when Frank was still alive to receive it.
    Never again speak of marriage equality in religious terms such as “God is in
    the mix.” He put his hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution not
    his hand on the Constitution and swore to uphold the Bible.

  2. “It’s difficult to quantify the precise number of gay residents in the
    United States because the census counts only households reporting as
    same-sex couples. This leaves out single gay people as well as straight
    gay rights supporters.”

    What do straight gay rights supporters have to do with the prices number of gay residents in the United States? Precisely nothing! Well done Mr. Walker and editor!

  3. Er, ahem:

    “What do straight gay rights supporters have to do with the PRECISE
    number of gay residents in the United States? Precisely nothing! Well
    done Mr. Walker and editor!”

    (At least mine was typo-related!)

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