Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

The White House LGBT Communication Gap

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | July 13, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: LGBT media, Melody Barnes, White House, White House Domestic Policy Council

The issue of a communication gap between the LGBT community and the White House was raised at the LGBT White House briefing two weeks ago with Melody Barnes, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.failure to communicate.jpg

The answers given by Ms. Barnes to questions about the White House LGBT communication gap seemed to confirm, rather than alleviate, the concerns expressed by the attendees.

There was a sense of denial. The White House is trying hard to communicate, so therefore, they must be communicating, despite what these pestilential media types across the table were insinuating.

There was no responsibility taken for the fact that the White suggested in Justice Department court briefs that marriage equality is like incest and child marriage, not once, but twice, and that homosexuality is incompatible with military service.

Communication gap? What communication gap?

Both Chris Geidner of MetroWeekly and Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend asked about this communication gap. The answers were interesting.

Here's the questions and the answers. (Summary at the bottom if you prefer.)

Chris Geidner, Senior Political Writer, MetroWeekly

Geidner: The question that I have relates to the White House's ability to communicate the mission that he's set forth. I think there are lot of concerns about the ability of the White House to communicate openly with the LGBT community about the steps that they are planning and that they are taking. Some of the more significant setbacks with the LGBT community have been during times when there has been Administration action, mainly the filing of briefs by the Justice Department, without any effort to inform the LGBT community about what's going on. I want to know, one, if you see that as a problem that the White House has had, two, what steps are being taken to change that and, three, if there aren't, why not?

Barnes: I would say that across the board and with the full range of issues that we work on, domestic policy, economic policy, national security issues, all the communities that we work with, there is a constant effort to better communicate the message and better communicate what we're doing. We have an extensive outreach component to the White House, and a communication component to the White House. I believe my colleagues are constantly touching and communicating and working with individuals and all the relevant communities. That we could do better -- I think we always strive to do better. I certainly also welcome your suggestions as I would imagine my colleagues would, for ways that would be more effective, and that we are able to both communicate what we are trying to do, as well as get feedback from members of the community, so that we are refining and learning from your perspective as we try to do our work better. But I would call that a constant effort, something that we are trying to do. It might be helpful if you share more specific information about what --

Geidner: Specifically in terms of, one of the major problems with the LGBT community is the defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask Don't Tell in court. Everybody at this table knows that I'm one of the people who has been most sympathetic to the defense of those bills. But at the same time I've had a real concern about the lack of explanation about why that is happening from the White House and why that is the appropriate thing to do if the White House has made that determination, that I think has enabled, every time there is a filing, for there to be an additional round of "what is the White House doing wrong and why are they doing that?".

Barnes: I would imagine in part, and I think this would be human, that when there's a filing it kind of scrapes at the scab one more time, and it reminds people of the posture of the Government one more time. But that doesn't change the rationale behind what we have to do. I think the President has said this and I believe members of this Administration, my colleagues, have said this, that we can't pick and choose the laws that we defend. There may be a small fraction of a fraction of a percentage of examples where the government has not defended a law on the books. But we believe, the President believes, that given his office he has to defend the law. At the same time, I think we have done a better job of also communicating in the briefs that it doesn't mean that we don't believe that DOMA is discriminatory. But at the same time, we have an obligation to defend the law of the land, and once you start to pick and choose you will also end up in a situation, at some future point with some other Administration, where people are saying why won't you defend this -- this is the law of the land. And the Administration will say, we have the right to pick and choose. Hate crimes is a key example where it's being attacked and we're defending it. Another Administration, if they didn't take seriously their obligation under the law, to defend the law of the land, would make another choice there. I think part of what we are trying to do, and this goes to some of your point perhaps, is communicate our disagreement with a particular law at the same time we are also communicating our obligation.

After this answer to Chris Geidner's question, Pam Spaulding followed up with a question.

Pam Spaulding, Pam's House Blend

Spaulding: Why now are we having something like this? I don't quite understand the delay in addressing the community, particularly the New Media, with a high-level official like yourself. This would have been much more productive if it happened earlier on in this term, because, unlike what I think I just heard, many of us feel that our readership is very unhappy with how things are going in terms of progress from the President. I don't think that they are in step with the relationship between our organizations that represent us. I wonder if the President is well aware of that disconnect. How can that be repaired with more briefing of this type with the grassroots and the netroots, because I think there is a problem here.

Barnes: I just want to scratch a little bit on, because I literally, I'm trying to better understand something you are saying here.... You said that there's, you were talking about the relationship between your readers and your organizations...?

Spaulding: That there's a big gulf between what our organizations, like HRC, --

Barnes; Oh okay, alright...

Spaulding: -- represent as progress, and what people at the grassroots, at the state level, who are hurting, who are not getting, who don't have protections. I come from North Carolina and there are no protections. That is the connection the White House has with the community. There is a big gulf there, which is seen every day and heard every day.

Barnes: Well, I guess first of all I would say we are here now, and that shows a desire to be engaged. I would also say, I believe that my colleagues who are in the communications offices and the outreach offices have had -- I don't know if it's daily, but I would probably say it should probably be very frequent communications and conversations -- with those of you sitting at this table and others who aren't at this table about the work this Administration is doing. I would say earlier, to Chris's question, there's always a desire and effort to do better. That's why we are sitting here now. I think if we all decide, if you all believe that this is something helpful, that this is the kind of thing that we want to do more of and more frequently going forward.

Spaulding: Just to follow up with that. I think I'm going to speak on behalf of Kerry Eleveld [of The Advocate] (laughter). This President hasn't had a sit-down interview with someone from the LGBT community. Why is that, when other groups of other constituencies have had that access?

Barnes: I will be honest. I will go back and share this with my other colleagues, with the Domestic Policy people. I can talk to you about policy, and I'm certainly able to share that with others, but that's the focus of the work that I do. For example, related to that, talking about the work that Jeff Crowley [Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy] and his team are doing all over the country at community meetings in city after city after city, because we do want to hear from members of the community as we are developing policy in the White House.

Summary: A For Effort

To summarize, in addressing the communication gap, Ms. Barnes said that they're already communicating every day or close to it with the LGBT community, and that they're trying to get better at communicating.

When asked if the President understood the disconnect between the gay advocacy organizations to which the White House talks, and the rest of the LGBT community, she glibly said something like "well, we're here now, aren't we?" She also said that we could have more briefings, if we thought it would be helpful. (My question: how helpful was this one?) She noted that one official, Jeff Crowley, of the Office of National AIDS Policy, talks to people all over the country.

She defended the Administration's need to issue those outrageous court briefs by saying that Administrations have an obligation to defend the law of the land. (Tell that to President Reagan, with his non-acquiescence policy, and Bush 44 with his signing statements.) She did not explain why other Administrations had declined to defend existing laws on occasion, or how DOMA and DADT are different, saying instead that such instances were very rare.

She did not address the supposed necessity of filing court briefs containing invidious comparisons to incest and child marriage, and the idea that being gay is incompatible with military service.

These were non-answers. They did not defuse concern about a communication gap -- they highlighted it.

I hope that the White House will sponsor more LGBT briefings, as Ms. Barnes suggested. They would focus the attention of the White House on our concerns and needs, forcing someone to think more deeply about these issues and come up with real answers.

This is part of a series of posts based on the White House briefing. The previous post in the series can be found here.


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It's clear that the White House is still just as clueless as they've ever been, just by the way they set up this meeting.

Who thinks that just nine people would be acceptable invitation list for a press briefing on any stripe of non-LGBT issues? Why is it acceptable for ours?

In addition, this event teaches us that the White House doesn't get New Media at all. They apparently think that each blog has a specific voice and can be represented by a single person. That may work for Pam Spaulding, but trying to represent the views of the Bilerico Project staff and similar sites with any one person is as ridiculous a proposition as trying to pick a single person to represent the views of the entire US Congress and makes about as much sense.

Apparently, they're still working off the antiquated mainstream media model where those creating the content are actually employed by the content provider and therefore can and often do enforce a certain institutional tone, style, and focus to their content that's neither possible nor desirable on multiple-author blogs.

Nine people in a room allowed a single question each doesn't help to convince me that the White House gets it. In fact, it convinces me of precisely the opposite.

The invite list was longer, maybe like twice as long, I think, but it was last minute and some of the people were from pretty far away. Doesn't change your point, though.

Exactly Jill, and the fact that it was thrown together by the White House at the last minute, no doubt in response to the drubbing they've been taking from a lot of us over the last several weeks, tells you that this isn't an Administration that's serious about getting proactive on LGBT issues but rather one that only bothers to take action when reacting to what they see as a political problem for themselves and the Democratic Party.

Pam's question on timing is spot on. If they were serious about anything other than quieting down the unruly Queers as election season begins, they'd have had such a briefing many months ago, and they'd have done it in a way that shows they actually take our issues seriously.

I'm not sure if that's a fair accessment, Becky. While it was last minute - and I complained about it myself and Jill went for TBP instead of me - most of these type of meetings at the White House happen on very short notice. The press usually only gets 48 hours.

The White House staff are always on call and usually overbooked. Their schedules change constantly. Since they don't want people flying in from across the country only to have the event canceled and ticket costs forfeit, they try to do it closer to the event.

That said, that model of organizing these events don't work for New Media types who aren't inside the Beltway or nearby. It cost Pam over $600 to get there; it cost Jill over $200. If I'd paid $600 to go and hear what they did, I'd be pissed too.

At least give people a fighting chance to rearrange their lives so that they're able to attend. If they're truly serious about opening communications with the grassroots of this community, the Obama Administration should invite enough people, devote enough time, and muster enough candor to make this kind of event truly worthwhile.

It's clear that the White House is still just as clueless as they've ever been, just by the way they set up this meeting.

Who thinks that just nine people would be acceptable invitation list for a press briefing on any stripe of non-LGBT issues? Why is it acceptable for ours?

In addition, this event teaches us that the White House doesn't get New Media at all. They apparently think that each blog has a specific voice and can be represented by a single person. That may work for Pam Spaulding, but trying to represent the views of the Bilerico Project staff and similar sites with any one person is as ridiculous a proposition as trying to pick a single person to represent the views of the entire US Congress and makes about as much sense.

Apparently, they're still working off the antiquated mainstream media model where those creating the content are actually employed by the content provider and therefore can and often do enforce a certain institutional tone, style, and focus to their content that's neither possible nor desirable on multiple-author blogs.

Nine people in a room allowed a single question each doesn't help to convince me that the White House gets it. In fact, it convinces me of precisely the opposite.

Oh she used those awful words ..."I will be honest". Translation...my knickers are soiled but I won't admit it to you.

I don't think it is a "communications gap," but i can understand the frustration. The White House knows the LGBT media doesn't want to hear the truth about passing anything LGBT-related. We can't get anything past the US Senate. The White House understands that, Pam Spalding and others in the LGBT media do not. They are expressing anger, not genuine inquiry because they don't like the answers or the current political reality.

This disconnect is the the result of the disingenuous statements by LGBT media that Obama "promised" to repeal DADT, when he actually "promised to work with Congress to repeal DADT." Congress, primarily the Senate, will not work with him. "Fierce advocate" is a subjective term. HRC is irrelevant and the LGBT media is more concerned about "miscommunication" than the waste of $50 million a year?

I appreciate your efforts Jillian, but those questions were not about "communication," they were about results - based on the exaggerated story that Obama himself could deliver on the promises he didn't actually make. They were about the access that HRC gets and they don't.

Many members of the LGBT media are more about expression of anger and frustration than real, objective reporting. Can the White House do a better job? Sure, but so can some members of our media.

Andrew, this particular post was not about the failure of legislative results, which I have covered elsewhere. It was about the failure to communicate with the community about the White House's scurrilous defense of DOMA and DADT in court briefs, and failure to meet with LGBT media outlets, and mistaking HRC for "the LGBT community." It has nothing to do with the Senate.