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Will Obama be Truman on Gay Rights?

By David Paul Kuhn

In June, 2008, Michelle Obama came to Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria for a fundraiser with wealthy gay Democrats and spoke of civil rights struggles "from Selma to Stonewall."

Nearly one year later, gay rights issues have taken on a renewed prominence. Recent shifts in states from Iowa to New Hampshire have upped the tally to six states that now recognize same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, California's high court recently upheld a voter-approved proposition blocking gay marriage. And on Monday, the Supreme Court denied a request to review the Pentagon's ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Quiet at the center of this storm is Barack Obama.

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Gay rights activists have noticed. Their patience has worn thin. Key leaders have privately expressed their frustration to top White House officials. Publicly, over the weekend, one gay rights activist proposed a march on Washington in October.

To the gay rights movement, the collage of issues is beginning to echo the crescendo of the civil rights movement in the mid 1960s. But, on social hot button issues, this is a cautious president. Obama is for now more similar to the slow-walk of John F. Kennedy than the bold action of Lyndon Johnson on civil rights, whose hand was in part forced by events like the march on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr.

That Obama is the first black president adds one more deep and evocative layer to the decisions before him. By comparison, the choices Obama now faces are far less politically fraught than the battle Harry Truman or Johnson experienced.

The comparison between the push for progress on gay rights and the black civil rights movement remains contentious in American politics. But the Obamas' straight line from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, a breakthrough moment in the civil rights struggle, to the Greenwich Village Stonewall Riots, which forty-years ago sparked the gay rights movement, only intensifies the moral dilemma before Obama.

American life has gradually accepted gay civil rights. But Americans distinguish between equal protection and equal cultural status for homosexuals, based on an extensive study of public opinion polling. That distinction is most visible in the public's support for civil unions but not gay marriage.

Obama exemplifies that view. His promises to gay rights groups are focused on issues of equality of opportunity but not equal cultural recognition.

During the campaign, Obama pledged to revive stalled hate crimes legislation and push for the reversal of the prohibition against gays serving openly in the military, as well as overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages and codified states' rights to also deny gay unions legal in other states. About a half year into his presidency, none of those pledges have been fulfilled.

"The amount of stuff on the president's plate is stacked higher than anyone could have imagined last fall," said one lesbian and gay rights leader privy to White House strategy on gay rights issues. "But," the leader added, "on the other hand, the landscape, like in Iowa and Maine, has shifted faster than anyone had expected. There is a lot of pressure to do what's right--right now."

Americans Shift on Gay Rights

A Gallup Poll last week underscored the change in Americans' attitude on gay rights. Three of the voting blocs coolest on gay rights are conservatives, Republicans and weekly churchgoers. About six in 10 of all three blocs now back allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. That marks a more than double-digit shift against the "don't ask, don't tell" on the political right in the past five years.

In 1993, Bill Clinton backed "don't ask, don't tell" in a controversial compromise. Since the policy went into effect, about 13,000 men and women have been discharged from the armed forces--a trend that has continued under Obama's watch.

No issue draws so clear a comparison to the dawn of the civil rights era than "don't ask, don't tell." In 1948, Truman issued an executive order integrating the armed forces. That same year Gallup found that only 13 percent of Americans supported "having Negro and white troops throughout the U.S. armed services live and work together."

That Obama has not acted on "don't ask, don't tell," despite public support that Truman would have envied, spotlights the delicate political tightrope the president now walks.

Obama is consumed by an historic domestic agenda, ranging from stimulus legislation to health care reform. It's no accident that he has withheld early engagement on the same issue that sidetracked Clinton's first year.

But this is also not 1993. That year, one summer Gallup survey found that Americans were divided on the issue--48 percent supporting the policy and an equal share against. Today, about seven in 10 Americans are against "don't ask, don't tell."

Yet Obama clearly is not itching to enter the culture wars. He has, for example, said that fulfilling his campaign promise to eliminate hundreds of standing government restrictions on abortions was "not [his] highest legislative priority."

This White House is also aware that many Democratic gains made in Congress in 2006 and 2008 were with culturally conservative constituencies.

But nationally, the momentum is there. In recent decades there has been a significant public shift on an array of gay rights issues, by Gallup's tracking. As recently as 1987, 51 percent of Americans believed "school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals." Only 28 percent agree today. Between 1978 and 2008, Americans support for gay equal rights rose from 56 to 89 percent.

Today, two-thirds of Americans believe hate crimes laws should protect homosexuals and that gay domestic partners deserve access to their partner's employee benefits, like health insurance. More than seven in 10 Americans believe that gay domestic partners should have inheritance rights. A majority, 54 percent, support adoption rights for gay couples. As recently as 2004, public support for gay adoption was at 45 percent.

Cultural Acceptance and the M-word

Yet mainstream cultural acceptance for homosexuals remains another matter. Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe "homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle," merely a few percentage points higher than when the question was first asked in the early 1980s.

Only 35 percent of the public also believes a man or a woman is born gay, more than twice the portion who said the same in 1977. But that climb is hardly steep in the context of gays' gains on civil rights issues.

That most Americans do not believe people are born gay is at the heart of the debate over whether the gay fight for equal rights is similar to hurdles faced by racial or religious minority groups. At the fore of this debate is gays fight for “marriage equality" and whether it's an issue of rights or cultural recognition.

In recent years, a majority of the public has gradually come to support civil unions. But a majority of Americans, 57 percent in Gallup's latest poll, remain opposed to terming those unions marriage.

Public opposition to gay marriage has held steady since Massachusetts became the first state to recognize same-sex wedlock five years ago. But stark fault lines do exist. Youth, Democrats and independents are far more likely to support gay wedlock than Republicans or seniors, for example.

In New England and across the East coast, where gay organizations have made the most progress, the Pew Research Center finds that a majority supports same-sex marriage.

And here to, on marriage, are echoes of the civil rights movement. As recently as 1983, Gallup found that half of Americans disapproved of marriage between blacks and whites. By 2007, only 15 percent disapproved.

But even this Democratic president has not, like the public overall, come to view the issue of gay marriage in the same terms as the push for unfettered wedlock between blacks and whites, which defines Obama's own story.

For the time being, gay activists are earning concession prizes. Gay rights leader Kevin Jennings was assigned to a senior post in the Department of Education. Obama has also declared June gay pride month, to commemorate the Stonewall riots.

But in evoking Stonewall, Obama has again reached back to the civil rights battles that made his presidency possible. It’s an analogy, however, that begs another question. If the gay rights push is akin to the civil rights era, how far and how urgently is the first black president compelled to carry on the fight?

In Depth: America's Freest and Least Free States

In Depth: 8 Things Americans Believe in 2009

David Paul Kuhn is the Chief Political Correspondent for RealClearPolitics and the author of The Neglected Voter. He can be reached at

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