Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Not His Best Interview, Alas.

Senator Barack Obama gave an exclusive interview to The Advocate yesterday. It was the first time Obama had spoken with an LGBT media outlet since September of last year. As he has before, Obama expressed strong support for gay rights. And while no one doubts his sincerity, the interview did little to assuage concerns in the gay community about the true strength of Obama's commitment.

When it came to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Obama said he had for a very long time been "interested" in its repeal, but he appeared to edge away from an earlier pledge to repeal the whole thing--a position he had previously touted. At the very least, Obama offered only the sort of non-specific answer that some of us find worrisome.

Advocate: Do you think it’s possible to get full repeal of DOMA? As you know, Senator Clinton is only looking at repealing the plank of DOMA that prohibits the federal government from recognizing state-sanctioned unions.

Obama: I don’t know. But my commitment is to try to make sure that we are moving in the direction of full equality, and I think the federal government historically has led on civil rights -- I’d like to see us lead here too.

Obama gave more strained answer when asked about homophobia in the African-American community. Earlier in the interview, Obama had pointed to his MLK Day speech as evidence of his commitment--but in this interview Obama was defensive of the African-American community, and seemed perhaps even to excuse such attitudes a little bit. Worse still, he ended up contradicting himself.

Advocate: There’s plenty of homophobia to go around, but you have a unique perspective into the African-American community. Is there a--

Obama: I don’t think it’s worse than in the white community. I think that the difference has to do with the fact that the African-American community is more churched and most African-American churches are still fairly traditional in their interpretations of Scripture. And so from the pulpit or in sermons you still hear homophobic attitudes expressed. And since African-American ministers are often the most prominent figures in the African-American community those attitudes get magnified or amplified a little bit more than in other communities.

When it came to the inevitable question on same-sex marriage, Obama began with supportive generalities but then went on to deliver an answer which--translated from his particular vernacular--means pretty much that he will not support gay marriage because he would lose the election if he did.

Obama: I strongly respect the right of same-sex couples to insist that even if we got complete equality in benefits, it still wouldn’t be equal because there’s a stigma associated with not having the same word, marriage, assigned to it. I understand that, but my perspective is also shaped by the broader political and historical context in which I’m operating. And I’ve said this before -- I’m the product of a mixed marriage that would have been illegal in 12 states when I was born. That doesn’t mean that had I been an adviser to Dr. King back then, I would have told him to lead with repealing an antimiscegenation law, because it just might not have been the best strategy in terms of moving broader equality forward.

Compare this to Hillary Clinton's answer to The Advocate when asked whether, despite her stated opposition, she privately harbored any desire for gay marriage:
Clinton: I don’t think that would be fair. Because, you know, I would tell you that. This is an issue -- I’m much older than you are -- and this is an issue that I’ve had very few years of my life to think about when you really look at it. When you compare it to a whole life span. I am where I am right now, and it is a position that I come to authentically. But it is also one that has enormous room and support both in my heart and in my work to try to move the agenda of equality and civil unions forward.

Aside from the tell-tale details of age and race, I think many people would have mistakenly reversed the attribution of these answers. Obama implies a political position that differs from his private views; Hillary speaks of personal values. It is a strange departure for Obama, who is usually so good at speaking to the heart, and it makes some of us wonder why it seems difficult for him in this context. Finally, when it came to questions of leadership, Obama boasted,

Obama: I’m ahead of the curve on these issues compared to 99% of most elected officials around the country on this issue. So I think I’ve shown leadership.

To me, this last claim suggests Obama may even be somewhat out of touch here. Obama may be ahead of 99% of the people he surrounds himself with, I suppose, but when it comes to gay rights Obama is certainly not in the forefront of his party, nor of America. (Neither is Hillary.)

Same-sex marriage is supported by 30-40% of the population, depending on your favorite survey, and the number of elected officials and candidates who support gay marriage is not trivial. The CA legislature has voted for it twice; the MA legislature voted overwhelmingly last year to defend the legality of same-sex marriage there; 49 state legislators in Maryland co-sponsored a bill to legalize same-sex marriage back in January; and support for same-sex marriage is officially part of the Democratic State party platforms in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

Obama's overall tone and approach makes me worry that his deference to the religious community, and his commitment to compromise and mutual understanding, will take precedence over his commitment to fight for gay rights. Well, maybe it was a hostile interviewer, or maybe it was just a bad day. But all I can say is I read the interview with great hopes and it ended up just sticking in my craw. Whatever the reason, it was certainly a lackluster interview for Obama.


USWest said...

Dr. S, based on your post, both candidates seem evasive. They are not willing, as you point out, to directly state an opinion. Doing so would hurt both of them. Another tact would be to support civil unions for straight couples. That would really blow the lid off the issue.

Not to diverge from this very important issue, but RBR, you have said that you are concerned about torture and excess executive powers in this election. And you have said that you have more confidence in Obama to halt torture and to roll back executive powers claimed by the Bush Administration.

Has either candidate addressed th4e executive powers issue directly? Have they been asked about it?

Sorry Dr. S to ride on your post. But I am thinking about all sorts of issues that I haven't really heard enough about from these candidates.

Pombat said...


From that, I would sincerely hope that Obama is hiding his personal views for fear of losing the election due to homophobic voters (let's face it, there's plenty out there*), with his plan being:
1. win election
2. do all sorts of great stuff for America
2a. ensure that true equality for homosexuals is included in the great stuff.

*interesting article in the March 29th Economist, comparing American and British views on multiple topics, via polls run in both countries, with lots of pretty little charts, and some interesting outcomes.

On homosexuality, the question given here is "do you regard homosexuality a sin?", with the answers being Yes - 40%, No, but not desirable - 25-30%, No, perfectly acceptable - 25% (apologies for rough numbers, reading off a chart with 'blobs' to indicate placement). Just for interest, the UK position was 15%, 40%, 45%; and "do you believe there is a God, Yes/No?" got 80%/10% in the US and 40%/35-40% in the UK (I'm guessing there were some undecideds in there).

I include that last one as it lends weight to my theory that bigoted misinterpretation of the Bible, and it's influence on the population may somewhat explain the positions on homosexuality held in certain places.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Pombat, if you read in context the excerpts I presented--better yet, the whole interview--I think you will be pleased and relieved to find that Obama does (as I tried to note up front) express strong support for gay rights--even concern on a personal level.

The thing is, there are a lot of people in one of Obama's core constituencies--the African American community--who oppose gay rights. And Obama may feel reluctant, especially after having been forced to denounce the sermons of his former pastor, to do anything to further test his relationship with his own base.

This interview seemed to confirm my worry that Obama was dropping gay rights down a notch in his priorities. He certainly did not sound like a man trying hard to win gay votes, that's for sure. At another point in the article, he was asked to compare the gay rights movement to the African-American civil rights movement. Here is how he answered:

"You always want to be careful comparing groups that have been discriminated against because each group’s experiences are different. I think that the transition toward fuller acceptance of the LGBT community has happened without some of the tumult and violence that accompanied the civil rights movement. But we still have a long ways to go, and I think that it also obviously varies geographically. I think in urban communities, you can’t say there’s full equality, but in terms of the LGBT community daily round they’re not as likely to experience certainly the discrimination that they experienced 25 years ago. Whereas, in the African-American community, you can still see some fairly overt racism. On the other hand, in rural communities, I think attitudes are slower to change."

It's a bit muddled, and Obama dances rather a lot around his answer, but I think in the end you it is clear that he does not think gays experience the level of overt discrimination that blacks experience. I am not sure if this is what he believes or if it is what he believes he must say. Either way, it is not particularly inspirational to me.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S. I think Obama is correct that any differences in homophobia among African Americans and Whites are largely due to differences in religiosity. I think Pombat (and Obama) are right to suggest that there is a strong link between religiosity and homophobia. I'd add something else, income and education levels. African Americans are more likely to have lower incomes and lower levels of education. Both of those things are associated with increased homophobia as well.

I don't take Obama's answers to be defending African American homophobia so much as discussing its roots (as he has done with race issues recently). But then I like Obama to begin with and probably subconciously see things through that filter while Dr. S. is probably subconciously looking for reasons to justify his opposition to him.

History Buff said...

Religious people are not monolithic in their opinions about gays either. For most people under 30 it is a nonissue, especially in the mainline religions. Perhaps Obama is trying not to offend older voters??

Raised By Republicans said...

US West,

I think I covered your question when I first posted about why I was going to caucus for Obama.

I'll ellaborate: Around the same time that Obama was giving his statements to the MTV event he gave this speech on foreign policy at De Paul University ( ).

This is all in contrast to Hillary's rather fluid position on both torture and the war. On the war she started out saying things like "Defeat is not an option" (contrast with Obama's "there is no military solution and there never was" - see the depaul speech). Clinton is now saying that within 60 days of being elected she will ask the Joint Chiefs to draw up a plan for withdrawl. So she has a plan to ask for a plan - ok, that's progress I guess. On torture she says she's oppposed to it but has Bill Clinton saying it would be justified under certain circumstances. Given the prominant role Bill Clinton plays in her campaign (and, let's be honest, he's a big part of her basic appeal to voters too!) that's tantamount to equivocation by her campaign if you ask me. Compare that Obama's clear statement at Depaul "And when I'm President, we'll reject torture - without exception or equivocation; we'll close Guantanamo; we'll be the country that credibly tells the dissidents in the prison camps around the world that America is your voice, America is your dream, America is your light of justice."

In the MTV event Obama said he's also reverse the abuses of executive power. To quote my previous post: "he said that he would order his Department of Justice to investigate all past practices by the Bush administration for their constitutionality and end any programs that violate the Constitution." Obama tought constitutional law at the University of Chicago so I think this is an issue he's qualified to lead on.

To be honest, it was the Depaul speech that nearly convinced me that Obama was the one I'd caucus for. When I heard the MTV event I was sold.

Dr. Strangelove said...

So a lot of old churches preach bigotry and find easy pickings among the poor and under-educated... Is this news to anyone? Really?

Actually, I was consciously looking for reasons to support Obama and was disappointed by the interview. Hence my post.

Obama began his interview by trivializing his avoidance of the LGBT press: "The gay press may feel like I’m not giving them enough love. But basically, all press feels that way at all times..."

Obama later went on to claim immodestly and inaccurately, "I actually have been much more vocal on gay issues to general audiences than any other presidential candidate probably in history."

Don't get me wrong--Obama is one of the good guys and I will be very happy to vote for him in the general election if he is the Democratic nominee. And I certainly understand that preventing torture is far more important than advancing gay rights. But compare Obama's unequivocal answer to torture (RbR's quote) with his unimpressive answers given to The Advocate, and I think you can understand why some people are not convinced his heart is really in it when it comes to gay rights... And that was a disappointment.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Obama's answer on same-sex marriage is, I think, worthy of more respect than you give it. He was offered a firm personal belief - connecting the struggle for gay marriage to his own parents' marriage - but cautioned about how to obtain desired results politically. I find that wise, not evasive.

As for the African-American community, what he was saying is that blacks aren't more homophobic than whites, but their homophobia is more institutionalized.

All of this is in the camp of being more realistic.

I am surprised that Dr.S finds Clinton's clear refusal to endorse same-sex marriage more appealing than Obama's clear endorsement of the concept, even while acknowledging that no strategically thought-out gay rights agenda should begin with gay marriage.

Somehow, Dr.S, this seems to me like seeing what you want to see in the answers. Which one of the two do you really think will change things, Ms. Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell who acknowledges she's a bit too old to really "get it," or a person who is (almost) of our generation?

The Law Talking Guy said...

I can't help but feel there's some prejudice against African-Americans in the gay community's response to Obama. There is some extra suspicion because of his race that he might not really be pro-gay-rights.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Here's the problem...

On Sept. 24, 2004, Obama said, "I'm a Christian, and so although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman"

On June 7, 2006, Obama said, "I personally believe that marriage is between a man and a woman."

On Marcy 3, 2008, Obama said, "I don't think it should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state. If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans."

Given Obama's consistent statements on his personal, religious views of marriage elsewhere, his "clear endorsement of the concept" with The Advocate is, at best, not the whole truth. At worst, it is the sort of wink-and-a-nod that is usually called "pandering."

But nobody doubts Obama is pro-gay-rights: he has spoken clearly, even eloquently, of his support for gays and lesbians. So perhaps the problem is that Obama is somewhat unfamiliar with the gay community, or at least somewhat uncertain of the best way to speak to the gay community.

I think maybe if Obama were more familiar with the gay community, he would know that approaching the issue as a lifelong spiritual journey resonates more with gays and lesbians than to approach it as a dry political conundrum. And Obama might also realize then instinctively that gays and lesbians are on the whole simply more comfortable with someone who is forthright about his or her personal religious beliefs, even where there are some disagreements. Because candor is a sign of respect, and in many ways respect is in the end what the "marriage" issue is really about.

Pombat said...

Dr S,
Apologies for my rushed earlier comment - it was rapidly typed during a "hope I won't get caught on the 'net" boredom break at my current temp job.

What I was trying to get at was that, hopefully, Obama is on-side when it comes to gay rights, gay marriage, etc etc etc, but is weighing the odds of getting elected in terms of votes from homosexuals/pro-gay rights/non-homophobes vs loss of votes from homophobes, and trying not to turn off the homophobes (as 't'were), in order to secure sufficient votes, and then go ahead and be fully 'gay-friendly' once elected. Fine balancing act, which in that perfect world I keep fantasising about wouldn't have to happen. On the other hand, maybe you're right when you say he simply doesn't know how to talk to the gay community (how does one talk to the gay community anyhow? I'd think it'd be pretty damned diverse & thus tricky).

In terms of the question of who experiences the most overt discrimination - interesting one. I can see the case for people who believe that blacks experience more discrimination - they cannot hide their blackness after all. But of course if the gay population as a whole does indeed experience less discrimination, simply due to being able to hide their gay status, that proves nothing - feeling forced to hide something about oneself in order not to be discriminated against on that basis is heavily indicative of the existence of that discrimination. When it comes down to it though, it's apples to oranges, and not a worthy debate IMO (a blog I read in Aus is having a similar debate at the moment, about disenfranchisement of women vs blacks, in the context of Hillary vs Obama).

I think the fact that Obama is very open about his own personal views, whilst at the same time stating that he supports gay rights (you've all heard me go on about how a true Christian would want everyone treated equally regardless of sexuality etc) is a hopeful sign. Maybe he's just stuck in a similar place to that described by LTG once a while back - apologies for my paraphrasing LTG, but the comment I'm thinking of was along the lines of "not getting" why gays wouldn't be happy with just the legal civil union (an easy thing to visualise for someone with a legal background such as Obama's), until LTG saw the happiness of newly married gay couples in Times Square.

The Law Talking Guy said...

To be fair, it was in San Francisco outside city hall. New York City has not been a leader in gay rights' issues since Stonewall.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Pombat: no apologies needed.

To be clear, the real issue with me here is not gay marriage, but priorities. I believe that Obama means well, but I am not sure if gay rights are much of a priority for him. I would like to believe Pombat's theory that Obama is secretly our greatest champion, but I just don't know. Obama has not been involved with the LGBT community. And I think that has hurt his ability to communicate here.

Obama can be so eloquent, yet he displayed an uncharacteristic tin ear in this interview with The Advocate. His equivocation on DOMA was puzzling. His discussion of gay marriage was dry and seemed to contradict previous statements about his religious views. His claim to be better than 99% on gay issues was misguided. His discussion of discrimination gays and lesbians experience was poorly worded.

Obama has spent a lot of time talking with diverse religious groups, from Episcopalians to Evangelicals, and to his great credit he has learned well how to speak to them and reach out to them. In the same way, I think this interview shows it would behoove Obama to spend time getting to know the diverse LGBT community, and learning how to speak and reach out to us. (Obama is a brilliant thinker and orator, so it might be something he could pick up easily. It can't be that tricky a skill to learn, after all. Hillary figured it out.)

Raised By Republicans said...

Given the percentage of the population that is effected directly by this issue and the range of issues our country faces, is it suprising that any candidate for national office would put a relative low priority on their otherwise good intentions in this regard?

Especially given that there are probably more people who would vote against him on this one issue for being a vocal leader on equality of marriage than would vote against him on this one issue if he waffles a bit on it.

Raised By Republicans said...

Of course any talk about Obama's priorities on gay rights is largely speculation.

We know exactly what Bill Clinton did. He talked big about gay rights in the military then stepped way back in the face of political opposition. This move really pissed off a lot of gay rights activists who expected more from him and were dissapointed.

I'm not saying Bill didn't make a reasonable compromise given the political situation. But I am saying that what he did amounted to the same kind of calculation of which issues matter more and where should one spend political capital, that we are speculating about here with regard to Obama.

Dr. Strangelove said...

You pinpoint the problem, RbR. Given Obama's limited record and his lack of involvement with the gay community, we can only speculate on what priority he might give to gay rights--and given the percentages you noted, that is not promising.

On the other hand, Hillary has been involved and supportive of the gay community for many years. And yes, we know exactly what Bill Clinton did.

Raised By Republicans said...

What gay rights legislation has Hillary sponsored in her one and a half terms in the Senate?

Dr. Strangelove said...

Hillary co-sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (to extend DP benefits to federal employees). She also co-sponsored various pieces of anti-hate-crime legislation.

Raised By Republicans said...

I'm sorry I just can't see a lot of policy difference here between the two. This comes down to whether you want to see Obama's glass as half empty and Hillary's as half full even though they have the same amount in each glass.

I looked it up on the "tubes" and found that the two, Obama and Clinton, have nearly identical records if you give Obama credit for stuff he did in his years in the Illinois Senate. He's sponsored and or supported very similar legislation to the items you give Clinton credit for.

Both Senators get an 89/100 rating on gay rights from Human Rights Campaign.

Obama also co-sponsored the bill you give credit to Hillary for.

Both want to repeal the "don't ask don't tell" policy and replace it with full equality - what I would call "don't ask who cares."

Obama opposed the Defense of Marriage act.

Hillary supported it at the time of its passage but now seems to oppose it. But her position is very similar to Obama's.

"Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage always has been, between a man and a woman." - Hillary Clinton, opposing same-sex marriages, quoted in The New York Daily News.

However, in October 2006 Hillary Clinton was quoted by as saying,"I believe in full equality of benefits, nothing left out. From my perspective there is a greater likelihood of us getting to that point in civil unions or domestic partnerships and that is my very considered assessment."

By the way, here is McCain's record on the issue according to the same source:

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR: I agree. There is not much policy difference at all between Obama and Hillary when it comes to gay rights. And they have similar legislative histories, though not identical. But I said that long ago (like, January) and I thought we had moved past that question. The real question here is one of trust and priorities. Obama and Hillary both say they want to do similar things when President, but who do I trust to work harder for gay rights and give gay rights more of a priority? Who will deliver?

Hillary has been involved in the LGBT community for years, meeting with state and national groups, attending all sorts of events (even marching in a gay pride parade), giving speeches and interviews freely, and working with all sorts of LGBT lobbying groups over the years. Not only has she been accessible but she has put a lot of personal effort into it. She has shown commitment and now has a lot of ties. Maybe she's just a good politician. But it's something to go on.

For all his good intentions, Obama just has not been involved--not even allowing for his time in the Illinois State Senate. Even in the current campaign he has turned down several offers to speak, including to the Human Rights Campaign. Philadelphia's gay newspaper recently ran a blank column on the front page where Obama had declined their request for an interview--next a full column for Hillary, who granted the interview without issue. Even in Obama's interview with The Advocate, the very first question they asked was why there has been this "silence" from him. I had hoped his Advocate interview would finally show the sort of commitment I was hoping for, but instead he came off sounding odd and out of touch, as I have tried to explain above.

And what I have just written about the different levels of involvement and commitment shown by Obama and Hillary represents the strong majority view in the gay community. I really hate to stake that kind of claim, but I feel I have to say so because my observations in this regard have been consistently dismissed here. Yes, maybe we're all blinded by Hillary's shiny pearl necklace... Or maybe we've just been paying closer attention to an issue that matters dearly.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Now this is pandering. "Gov. Rendell joins Chelsea Clinton in Gay Pub Crawl in Philly." I kid you not. I don't know whether to be thrilled or appalled. Or both.

Dr. Strangelove said...

From the article: "Out on the streets, Chelsea Clinton was like a pied piper, leading her dates for the night, Gov. Ed Rendell and actor/director Rob Reiner, and a throng of well-wishers that included transvestites, gay men and lesbians."

Raised By Republicans said...

OK, so vote for Chelsea.

Dr. Strangelove said...

If Chelsea ever does decide to run for office, she is getting a hell of an education in how to campaign (and how not to...) from her parents right now.

Raised By Republicans said...

I comlpetely agree. And she seems to be the one member of that family that doesn't carry an enormous amount of ugly bagage of one sort or another.