2008 Obama Confronts African American Crowd on Gay Rights
posted by February 29 at 9:11 AMon
Okay, Obama went on the Pat Robertson’s hateful little cable network too, just like Hillary—bad marks for both on that score. But in addition to releasing an open letter to gays and lesbians yesterday, Obama also went out of his way to confront a largely black crowd on its homophobia.
Obama’s rally in Beaumont today was the highest-energy of this Texas swing, with a crowd that was about three-quarters black cheering at almost every turn.
An interesting moment came when he was asked a question about LGBT rights and delivered an answer that seemed to suit the questioner, listing the various attributes—race, gender, etc.—that shouldn’t trigger discrimination, to successive cheers. When he came to saying that gays and lesbians deserve equality, though, the crowd fell silent.
So he took a different tack:
“Now I’m a Christian, and I praise Jesus every Sunday,” he said, to a sudden wave of noisy applause and cheers. “I hear people saying things that I don’t think are very Christian with respect to people who are gay and lesbian,” he said, and the crowd seemed to come along with him this time.
I haven’t seen a tape of the event, but it seems clear that Obama went beyond the call of duty in Beaumont yesterday. Asked about gay rights, he began his answer with an anti-gay rights rhetorical formulation popular with religious bigots everywhere: the Ken Hutchersons of the world argue that anti-discrimination laws should apply only to “immutable” characteristics like race and gender. (Never mind that religious belief is a highly mutable characteristic—especially in the United States—and discrimination against people on the basis of religion is illegal.) And when Obama said we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of race, the largely African American crowd cheered; when he said we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of sex, the crowd cheered; and when he said we shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the crowd sat silent.
Obama could have moved on here, hurrying off to his next point, returning to some safer piece of ground. Obama, being a Democrat, said what he had to say about gay rights; basically, “I’m for ‘em, even if makes some people that are for me uncomfortable.” A lot of politicians, having done the bare minimum for the gays, would have refrained from pressing the point, and opted to quickly toss out something to get the crowd cheering again. But Obama didn’t do that. He took in the crowd’s silence, recognized it for what it was (an expression of bigotry), and proceeded to challenge the largely African American crowd its homophobia—and he did it using explicitly religious language.
Back to Politico…
The moment reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a senior figure in the national gay rights movement, who noted that Obama’s deference to some black Christian discomfort with homosexuality—his refusal to dump the “ex-gay” gospel singer Donnie McClurkin from a tour—angered some gays and lesbians; but conversely, that his ability to sell gay rights in the black church is unique and appealing.
But Obama isn’t just able to sell gay rights to blacks that have been exposed to the virulent homophobia peddled by African American churches. He seems willing to do it—and willing to do it at a particularly crucial stage in the campaign.
I’m impressed. I’m used to seeing viable Democratic presidential candidates give us a little lip service, a little hushed support around the margins—maybe a speech at the HRC dinner, maybe a quick mention during the general election. But never before has a Democratic candidate on the verge of winning the nomination risked votes by coming out so strongly and so publicly for gay rights.
It’s time to be candid about this—because gay voters, in my judgment, could make the difference in Ohio and Texas and Vermont and Rhode Island. There are very large gay communities in Texas’ cities, and Ohio has the sixth largest gay community in the country. A plea: Do not sleep-walk into that voting booth with vague good feelings about the Clintons. Walk into that booth with eyes open and see what gay people have in front of them….
Yes, the McClurkin flap was poorly handled and a casualty of the usual gay-straight tensions in the African American south. But it is overwhelmed by Obama’s clear support and understanding of gay people and willingness to support our dignity at times and in places where others have not. I’ve seen it unprompted in private and unapologetically in public. I never saw it in the Clinton years, and Clinton herself is a victim of the defensive crouch that has immobilized progress at the national level for a decade or more….
What Obama is doing on the gay issue has the potential transform it and help us as a society to move past it. No, he’s not a savior. No, we shouldn’t expect miracles. No, we should never delegate the work of our equality to anyone else. We, after all, are the ones we’ve been waiting for. But within the Democratic contest, the case for backing Obama at this point in time is, to my mind, urgent, vital, historic.