Friday, April 18, 2008

That Liberace Is One Hell Of A Piano Player!

Well-meaning liberals have a difficult history with minorities: they’re always putting their foot in it while trying to persuade us that they mean well, they’re on our side, they see us as normal human beings like themselves. Sometimes they just make fools of themselves, and there’s nothing so terrible about that. At other times they let slip something that shows that beneath the surface egalitarianism, they still at times feel a need to pull rank.

I don’t mean to be smug here – I’ve put my own foot in it often enough, an important and humbling reminder that while I may be an underdog from one angle, I’m an overdog from others. A Presidential candidate will be in constant peril of such missteps, and Barack Obama just succumbed. Not too seriously – it doesn’t bother me as much as his desire to bomb bomb Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – but it’s still a reminder of the craziness that lurks in the hearts of straights and those who fawn on them. An interviewer asked him,

What event or person has most affected your perceptions of or relationship to the LGBT community?

Well, it starts with my mom, who just always instilled in me a belief that everybody’s of equal worth and a strong sense of empathy -- that you try to see people through their eyes, stand in their shoes. So I think that applies to how I see all people.

Somebody else who influenced me, I actually had a professor at Occidental -- now, this is embarrassing because I might screw up his last name -- Lawrence Goldyn, I think it was. He was a wonderful guy. He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time, but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.

“Proselytizing” – how that takes me back! Back to the days when “militant recruiting homosexuals” were the bogey of the Christian Right. (Also of sex researchers and militant recruiting heterosexuals William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who wrote in their books of homosexuals “recruiting.”) It shows that despite his claim to “try to see people through their eyes,” and despite making nice noises about giving us civil unions and letting us into the military so we can help stomp on Arabs, Obama is still seeing us through the eyes of bigots.

Even better, Obama was being interviewed for the gay magazine The Advocate when he said this. It’s as if a white politician were to tell Ebony about the first black professor he’d ever come in contact with, who was just a terrific guy and wasn’t chasing after white women all the time, just really comfortable in his own skin. How do you think that would go over?

When the interviewer asked Obama about his inviting an ex-gay preacher to address a gospel concert he hosted in South Carolina, Obama explained:

If you’re segmenting your base into neat categories and constituency groups and you never try to bring them together and you just speak to them individually -- so [if] I keep the African-Americans neatly over here and the church folks neatly over there and the LGBT community neatly over there -- then these kinds of issues don’t arise.

The flip side of it is, you never create the opportunity for people to have a conversation and to lift some of these issues up and to talk about them and to struggle with them, and our campaign is built around the idea that we should all be talking.

But according to the account I read, the gospel concert where Donnie McClurkin sang and preached was predominantly African-American in its makeup. So Obama was segmenting his base, pandering to the prejudices of one group -- I doubt he'd have invited McClurkin to perform at services in a predominantly white Episcopal church in Manhattan. I don’t see how this “create[s] an opportunity for people to have a conversation,” either. Obama has the strange notion (shared with the Christian right) that there are no gay Christians, or Christians among Democrats for that matter, so it’s necessary to bring the sundered groups together by keeping them segmented so they can have a conversation. Stuff like this probably sounds better in person or on TV, which is one reason I prefer to read text, where Obama’s charming personality doesn’t get in the way and what he’s actually saying comes through more clearly. And what he’s saying is reactionary.

Another revealing bit from the interview: when Obama says that he prefers to let “the LGBT community” decide whether to accept civil unions or to push for equal marriage rights,” the interviewer asks him, “Is it fair for the LGBT community to ask for leadership? In 1963, President Kennedy made civil rights a moral issue for the country. Obama counters by pointing out that Kennedy didn’t overturn the laws against interracial marriage, and the interviewer concedes the point. But Kennedy did not lead on racial issues, very much the opposite: he dragged his feet, refusing to intervene when anti-racism workers were being beaten and killed in the South; and he actively worked against the Civil Rights movement, trying to prevent the 28 August 1963 March on Washington. The movement forced him to act (along with embarrassment – when the US government did act in those days to protect the rights and lives of black Americans, it was out of fear that the Communists would capitalize on the bad image American racism was giving the country in the eyes of the world). It wasn’t Kennedy who “made civil rights a moral issue for the country,” it was the Civil Rights movement that did so. The best that can be said for Kennedy is that he followed, not that he led.

As will Obama, most likely. His small gaffe about “proselytizing” is probably less important than his expressed grasp of what equality actually means. (Not that I support him, much less trust him.) Voting will not bring about change, as the aftermath of November 2006 should remind us. But no politician can deliver on his or her fine promises, especially those not made to corporations, unless he or she is made to.

(A squidge o' the mouse to Al Schumann for the link to the interview, and to my old friend Leslie for the Onion clip.)