It’s not an easy task to trump a president-elect during pre-inaugural media feeding frenzies. But when Barack Obama announced the selection of Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, the gay community temporarily stole the global spotlight.
There have already been enough words said about the Warren controversy; I don’t need to add fuel to the fire. But the incident did provoke me to think deeply about the relationship between President Obama and the nation’s GLBT community.
I first read Obama’s bookThe Audacity of Hope in the spring of 2008. Obama noted how important the human rights struggles of the 1960s and ’70s were in bringing all kinds of disenfranchised groups to the political table. But he also noted that Ronald Reagan probably won the 1980 election because he characterized the rhetoric of these groups as “the politics of victimization.”
Obama feels he understands the whole issue of human rights well, growing up with an interracial heritage. He had to find his own balance between a struggle for rights and a slide into victim mentality. Based on my understanding of Obama’s political philosophy of inclusion, the Rick Warren choice seemed logical to me. The outcry from the GLBT community, however, convinced me that this sense of logic wasn’t shared by many other gays.
Since Barack Obama is our leader for the next four years, the GLBT community must learn how to work with him. So I offer my own thoughts for others to reflect on, as we collectively determine our community’s relationship with the 44th president.
Victimization is, in essence, obsessive grieving. The grief is real. It is justified. It is a normal, natural, and necessary response to injustice and loss. Historically, the GLBT community has been treated with disdain, violence, and alienation. We’ve been the target of moralists and gay bashers. We’ve had our basic rights denied and our very existence threatened. To grieve over such hurts is to be human.
However, as with all grief, there is only one true resolution: to accept our losses and to move on. Accepting our losses doesn’t mean that we condone the actions that caused them, nor do we exonerate the people who caused them. It simply means that we have, as all 12-step recovery programs emphasize, “the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
We don’t have to look beyond today’s headlines to see that resolving grief means that past injustices must be put to rest. Israel and Palestine continue their seemingly perpetual bloodbath that destroys countless innocent lives because neither side can resist seeking atonement for past atrocities.
What I’m suggesting is not a simple “turn the other cheek” attitude. There are very practical reasons to transcend past injustices and join in an effort to find commonalities with our detractors, instead of emphasizing our differences.
Real change doesn’t occur overnight. It’s incremental. In the mid 1990s while I was an employee at Chase Bank, I joined actively in support of the newly established diversity effort that the bank had initiated, and helped found the firm’s Pride Team. One of the initial realities we had to accept was this: people can be forced to change their behavior, but not their attitudes. For example, I knew that some people would continue to make Brandon-bashing comments, but now they would have to be very careful just how publicly they made those comments. If homophobic comments were reported to the management, these people would be punished because of the new corporate diversity policies. Their attitudes remained the same, but their windows of opportunity had become much smaller and would continue to shrink, as more and more people came to believe in the value of respecting diversity.
After the Warren controversy broke, the pastor called lesbian rock singer Melissa Etheridge and told her he was a fan. He accepted an invitation to meet her partner and her children. Etheridge said she felt genuinely moved by their meeting. Many critics were quick to label her as “naïve.”
Perhaps it is her critics who may be naïve. Change can happen, but it has to be accepted at a pace that is realistic. Progress for our community has come at a pace of “two steps forward, one step back.” Let’s try to focus more on that incremental one step forward.
Our community has goals that are noble, and it has complaints that are legitimate. But if we don’t choose our battles wisely, we will waste political capital, and we may come to be viewed by some as whiners. If we “cry wolf” too often, the day may come when no one listens.
President Obama is determined to lessen the polarization in America. Inviting a man of faith who is not a member of his political base helped to do just that at the inauguration. And as fate would have it, Warren delivered a totally unmemorable invocation. When Aretha Franklin appeared with that über-fabulous big-bow hat, Warren quickly became forgotten history.
We can’t expect the president to ignore those people who share views different from his own—or from ours. What we can do is to support his efforts to bring people in this country face to face, with a new willingness to walk in each other’s shoes. And when we do, we all begin to discover that no matter what shoes we wear, we all walk on the same common ground.
Brandon Wolf founded the online group, Houston Activist Network (Han-Net), which is now LoneStarActivists.