The interview at the White House with Melody Barnes last week lasted over an hour. The full transcript would be quite long and quite dense, so I've broken it into a series of more digestible pieces.
These are quite revealing, I think, about the thinking going on in the White House about the LGBT community.
For example, who is it, quite frankly, that is responsible for equality legislation not moving forward?
I use the term "quite frankly" both because it is a term used by Melody Barnes in her answer to one of the questions that I am discussing today, and because the term signals a step up in the level of candor of the speaker. It is used to note that, although what the speaker has previously said is true enough, what is about to come is perhaps a bit disturbing but said in the name of frankness.
Here, Ms. Barnes is quite frank about what the community needs to do in order for full equality to move forward.
I am of two minds about her statement. On the one hand, I feel as if the community is being "blamed" for lack of progress. On the other hand, I sense that we have been handed a really, really golden piece of advice by a highly intelligent, connected outsider who can view us objectively.
I'm both angry at events and thankful to Ms. Barnes for her candor, and wondering how to make use of this advice, which you can find after the jump.
This section of the interview begins with a question from Kerry Eleveld of The Advocate:
"A lot of the things that you guys have done, especially at the agency level with executive actions taken, seem to me to be what I would think of as "fixes" for not full access to marital rights and the workaround for DOMA and I'm wondering when the President is going to move beyond separate but equal fixes to embrace basic issues of full equality, and specifically on marriage. We're seeing some serious challenges to DOMA in the judicial system, as well as the Olson-Boies Proposition 8 case. Those are all going to be working their way through the pipeline and I'm wondering what the President is going to do in the next couple of years with regards to those issues, when is he going to move past the fixes to embrace full equality?"
Barnes: Well, I think two things I would say in response to that. One, that the President has consistently called for the repeal of DOMA, and one because he thinks it's discriminatory, and two because he thinks it is necessary as we try and make sure that same sex couples have access to the full range of benefits, which is why he has called for activity on the federal level and in the federal government, in his cabinet and agency heads to try to use their authority to see how far they can go and to go as far as they can. I think that between the repeal of DOMA and asking the feds, and within his executive authority to incorporate and to make sure that benefits are available, that's a course he has identified, that's a course that he has supported.
I would also add that even Congressman Nadler, who's the sponsor of the DOMA repeal, that he's also said there's more education, more work that has to be done to move this forward, but with his leadership, I know of his work from my time in the House of Representatives, and with the President also calling for this to be done, and in partnership, quite frankly, with the community to provide that education to move this forward to repeal, then that sets the stage for the opening of great benefits.
Eleveld: But just to reiterate, he still supports civil unions, and he still signals that -- that's a separate but equal institution -- and I'm wondering if he's has any point going to embrace full equality rather than these smaller steps that I'm talking about.
Barnes: And I understand what you're saying, but that's the course that he has set forth.
That last sentence in the block quotation above is, I think, key:
...in partnership, quite frankly, with the community to provide that education to move this forward to repeal, then that sets the stage for the opening of great benefits.
Why did she feel it necessary to add the parenthetical statement "quite frankly"? About what was she being "frank"?
The public, despite all that we have done, despite all our insiders and despite all our campaigning in California and elsewhere on the issue of marriage equality -- they are largely uneducated about the issue.
What I take this to mean is that we have made incredible strides in reaching out to insiders. Being gay-friendly is pretty much de rigeur for anyone who wants to be perceived as a sophisticate. That includes Congressmembers (except for those on the extreme right, of course). But the electorate, on average, is not interested in sophistication. The hoi polloi want what they want -- which is to be left alone by the nosy Government with a decent job and their friends and family and some decent entertainment. They don't want to be told that they ought to support LGBT rights or anything else not in their vocabulary.
So how then, are we supposed to go about building the gay rights vocabulary of the electorate?
That is called education.
And that, quite frankly, is what Ms. Barnes was pointing to as the missing ingredient in the full equality equation.
Of course, the first thing that came up when I transcribed this Rhett-Butleresque "quite frankly" comment -- I got my back up. Doesn't she know how much time and effort we have put into education?
Then I realized that, of course, she knows. She's been part of the educators on this issue who have helped to transform the political insiders from largely homophobic to largely gay-friendly.
She's saying more is needed.
Here's an analogy I always use with my students who come in complaining about their grades. They want to know why I gave them such a poor grade. I suggest to them that they think about a college class like a sports team. When the ball comes to them, and they drop it, and the coach says "you dropped the ball," they don't get mad at the coach. I mean, you can get mad at the coach, but it makes no sense. The coach is there to help you catch the ball next time, and it doesn't help to get mad when they notice you dropped the ball. When I give a bad grade, it's saying they dropped the ball. Getting mad at me doesn't help anything. It's better to focus on how not to drop the ball next time.
It's the same here. We can get mad at Melody Barnes: "how dare she tell us we need to do more education, doesn't she know blah blah blah"?
But I think the smarter course is to acknowledge that we have mastered the insider strategy, but not the outsider strategy.
I remember the time someone made a loud, rude comment to me in the beginning of my transition in a public restaurant in 1998. I turned on my heel and left, embarrassed and mortified. I couldn't stop thinking about it all day. I was burning with shame and embarrassment and righteous indignation. Gradually, after thinking about it for hours, I had the thought that here was someone, more honest than the average person, who specifically pointed to the very thing that I needed to address in order to be accepted more fully. I thought to myself that I ought to thank that woman. Everyone else thought their thoughts, pointing and laughing in their minds, and kept it to themselves -- and from me. Now I knew what I needed to work on, and I did, and I overcame that obstacle. Thank you, anonymous woman from 1998.
What I take from what Melody Barnes said is that we have dropped the ball. We haven't yet accomplished the education of the public that is needed. What would that look like? TV ads? Social networking? Facts and figures? Emotional appeals?
I don't really know -- wish I did. But you can be sure I'm going to be thinking about it pretty hard in the next few months.
Is she right that education is the missing piece? If so, how do we accomplish it?
This is part of a series of posts based on the White House briefing. The previous post in the series can be found here. The next post in the series can be found here.