Michelle Marzullo

"Hope" Is Not Enough: LGBT Activists and Scholars Call on Obama to Improve Agenda

Filed By Michelle Marzullo | March 20, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
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Editor's Note: William Leap and David Peterson assisted in the writing of this post.

There are reasons for "hope," but hope is not enough, agreed community activists, lobbyists, students and scholars who gathered at a pre-conference workshop entitled "Is "Hope" Enough? Anticipating the LGBTQ Discursive Landscape of the Obama Administration during American University's 16th annual Lavender Languages conference in Washington, DC (a podcast is coming soon!). The town-hall style gathering closely examined the new administration's positions on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.

I organized this workshop to focus on President Obama's policy agenda for LGBT persons. That the White House unveiled a statement of support for LGBT people on its website was historic and heartening. Therefore, this forum was also used to call on policymakers, advocates, and researchers concerned with the LGBT issues to remember who is not being spoken for, what issues are not being discussed, and what fractures within the LGBT community now appear in stark relief under President Obama's supportive LGBT Civil Rights agenda.

Linguists William Leap (American University) and David Peterson (University of Nebraska at Omaha) as well as Matt Adler, Sadie Baker, Loraine Hutchins, Cathy Renna, and Ché Ruddell-Tabisola (five experienced lobbyists and activists) all weighed in on how the White House's agenda would impact the communities they work for/with (bios are found below). This began a lively two hour exchange with the workshop audience.

LGBT Civil Rights Support?

The discussion focused on the White House's statement on Civil Rights. LGBT civil rights issues are prominently place on the Obama administration's Civil Rights webpage. Participants acknowledged that no other presidential administration in recent memory has acknowledged the existence of LGBT injustice so prominently. At the same time, participants found that much of the Obama administration's discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues should be improved upon.

A basic concern was that the acronym "LGBT" is used on the White House's webpage, but these letters are not explained as meaning "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender." The effect is that the White House's statement is narrowly focused on communicating only to those familiar with this acronym and treats these categories as more cohesive than they truly are.

Participants noted that the White House's policy statements seem to assume that issues affecting LGB and T people do not also affect other communities. This split is false. For example, it was pointed out that the administration's call to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy banning homosexuals from openly identifying while in service is not repeated on the White House's webpage on building defense capabilities for the 21st century.

The panel also noted that the administration's policy commitments on women's health make no references to the unique health needs faced by trans women. The administration's discussion of homelessness says nothing about the LGB and T dimensions of urban and rural displacement, a particularly acute problem for LGBT youth. It also ignores the very real, often brutal discrimination faced by trans folks in general with higher incarceration rates because they deal with joblessness due to rampant employment discrimination, which many times leads them into last resort jobs involving sex work. Discussants also pointed out that the administration's current proposals do not attend to the unique needs of LGB and T rural constituencies but instead has an urban focus.

Fighting for an Improved LGBT Agenda: It Starts with Us

The discussion then turned to ways that we might improve this unevenly developed agenda. Here, participants proposed the following suggestions for policymakers, lobbyists, scholars and activists to improve LGBT policy formation:

  1. Avoid "LGBT" Acronym in Policy Formation: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender concerns should be precisely articulated and targeted in both policy and legislation by clear identification of particular constituencies. Using the "LGBT" acronym can inadvertently mask the distinct needs of different groups. Worse, not naming what this acronym stands for means that the agenda only preaches to the choir and does not overtly stand for LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER rights.
  2. Don't Segregate Issues: Segregating issues by only associating them with certain "identities" or constituencies should be avoided. Social problems are not "owned" exclusively by some groups. Reiterating overlapping issues across various arenas of policy concern will better reflect the integrative, bipartisan approach of the Obama administration and will help to ensure important problems are not erased as policy is formed.
  3. Assert Our Lives' Value: We are people, not statistics. We should not disguise our lived experience in terms of numbers. Citizens and advocates alike should address problems by emphasizing the values that are true for all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. We can assert our place in the world while also insisting that we not be segregated based on our individual identities or hidden behind the statistics that some lawmakers like to use to justify leaving us out.
  4. Don't Avoid Touchy Topics: If we refuse to name a dangerous topic, the topic becomes more dangerous. We should not shy away from demanding our rights--even if we feel uncomfortable or make others feel uncomfortable. We are worth it.
  5. Help Broaden The Agenda...Repeat: Communicate directly and repeatedly with the administration, policy makers, and legislators about distinct policies or laws that affect us and could be better developed to address our needs. If the agenda seems limited, it is partly because we must learn to use our newly receptive government and organizations to implement an improved agenda--communicate, often.

As President Obama said in his 2008 Iowa Caucus victory speech:

Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it and to fight for it.

Thus, the group concluded that, indeed, hope is not enough but that all those concerned with LGBT issues need to communicate clearly and loudly to this historically receptive administration to improve the unjust and harmful conditions that many LGBT persons toil under in these United States.

This blog will be used to continue the conversation about what it is that LGBT individuals desperately need federal policymakers to act upon. Please send me your stories and suggestions and I will highlight these in this blog.


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Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | March 20, 2009 1:50 PM

Michelle, this conference sounded really useful. Thanks for providing this info and for organizing the event.

I just have to point out the unintended humor of this section:

Here, participants proposed the following suggestions for policymakers, lobbyists, scholars and activists to improve LGBT policy formation:

1. Avoid "LGBT" Acronym in Policy Formation

Great job with the suggestions - seriously.

It was an amazing event because of the panelists and the participants and, of course, because of the initiative by the Obama administration. Stay tuned for a story or two on the LGBT folks who helped to craft the agenda.

lauralei in Cali | November 12, 2009 6:21 PM

Interesting article, how about asking congress to issue a non-binding resolution condemning the votes in Maine and California (and elsewhere) re. repeal of marriage equality?