The President's HRC speech: What the media are missing
The news media seem unanimous this morning in reporting that the big news from the President's speech last night was his promise that "I will end Don't Ask Don't Tell." Many gay commentators, on the other hand, are asking how this speech was different from any other speech he has given - after all, he's promised to end DADT before. I think both voices are missing the mark.
What President Obama said that was new and different last night wasn't the repetition of his support for ending DADT, or passing ENDA, or signing the hate crimes bill into law, or ending the HIV immigration ban, or enacting benefits for federal employees - all of which he has said before and none of which he can do without Congress. What was new, at least to my ears, were the subtle steps toward a language of moral equality.
He did this at two points in the speech. First, he argued that society should recognize relationships between same-sex partners as "just as real and admirable as a relationship between a man and woman." He's not taking any chances by calling them just as real - mainstream America is already backing civil unions. But "just as admirable"? That's important.
And no - he very carefully did not endorse marriage equality. I won't hold my breath for that. But "just as admirable" is what the marriage struggle is all about; it's the reason why marriage has come to dominate the lgbt agenda. This is America, and we Americans seem to have a penchant for using the promise and premise of domestic security in marriage as an unacknowledged stand-in, even litmus test, for the nation's domestic security. Yes, it's a false promise and no, it doesn't make much sense to me, but there it is. The marriage struggle has become the proxy for equal citizenship, and so it's the fight we're going to have to win. And "just as real and just as admirable" -- if I lived in Maine, I'd start printing No on 1 bumper stickers with that phrase.
The second important moment in the speech was his call for an America where "no one has to fear walking down the street holding the hand of the person they love." That example - although totally outside the realm of law - cuts to the heart of making it safe to come out, which has always been the central goal of lgbt rights advocacy. Visibility without fear is the marker of true cultural equality. There are many places where it's already safe to hold hands, but there are many more where it isn't. And one reason why I regret that the coverage of the speech is focusing on DADT is that I would much rather that all the people living in the unsafe-to-be-gay states read the hand holding sentence than that they hear that the President has (once again) declared the military policy is wrong.
So while the speech announced nothing new in the realm of law and policy, it was a moment and a text that was rich in meaning and in promise. And a good use of the bully pulpit.
[PS - If you compare his Pride reception speech in June, you'll see several of the same ideas - even the same lines - that he used in the HRC speech. What's different is the tone on relationship recognition.]