Elections and Electives



Get eleven to sixteen million people together, which is the number of people employed by federal contractors, and odds are that a very healthy portion are part of the QUILTBAG. Promised protections against LGBT discrimination in federal contracting would have guaranteed their jobs against bigots. As an important benefit for all Americans, I like to think this would have also meant more incentive to fire incompetents or frauds among contractors, rather than going straight for … whoever isn’t straight.

However, get just a handful of politicians in the executive branch together with LGBT advocates, and somehow, what looks like a common sense and damn fair proposal gets put on hold to study the issue more. The rationale? They suddenly aren’t sure protections are required.

Many people will dismiss this as “politics as usual”. No argument here. It does, however, give us an opportunity to reflect on what that simple phrase means exactly, especially in our current climate.

The problem with letting an explanation like that just stand is that it doesn’t give any indication of how to change politics as usual. Embedded in it is the cynical certainty that politics as usual cannot change. If you want to give up on a better United States, then that’s an excellent way to express your sentiments and encourage others to share them.

If instead we want to improve our lot, we have to look at the statement as a piece of rhetoric and within the context this decision was made.

The next step one might take is to say this is about electoral politics, that President Obama cannot, so close to November, have a big confrontation over LGBT rights when he needs to win four more years first. There are serious flaws with that argument, but let’s look first at why it might carry some weight.

One, Santorum’s “suspension” aside, there has been a consistent rightward shift in American political discourse at least since the end of Carter’s administration, as seeds planted by Barry Goldwater blossomed in Reagan’s new “morning in America”. The fact that individuals like Santorum could run at all with any credibility underlines the right wing climate. Hence why some believe Obama is betting on his LGBT base’s patience, and shying away from too close an association, in hopes of securing the American “middle”, which actually tends rightward.

Two, with a seriously obstructionist Congress, and so much capital spent on things like healthcare reform, some may say it is not even possible to push protections. Or, if it is, it would take scraping the bottom of the barrel, only to make for a sudden new bureaucratic nightmare in our already byzantine contracting structure, which will create more trouble in the short term, around November, than goodwill. Better to wait until he gets another mandate, maybe.

But there is far too much that prevents this analysis from working by itself.

First, passing this right after Santorum’s suspension would be a perfect coup, kicking the culture warriors while they’re down, and put Romney on the defensive. Nothing Romney could do would look good. He says nothing, his party’s anti-equality hardliners, already suspicious and uninspired by him will figure this is part of his “run as a conservative in primaries, win as a moderate after”, cynical, unprincipled strategy. If he does make the “right” noises about simple non-discrimination policies, he sinks his moderate cred further, and looks like an ineffectual whiner. He could come out and say this is good policy, and then get torn apart by the wolves.

Second, Obama doesn’t need congress to do this. He can do it purely on executive authority. The debate was over whether he should sign an order of that nature, not over floating a bill.

Third, it looks painfully weak and cowardly for just about any administration to delay anything for further study, even when it is a good idea to do so. It always looks bad. Considering how he had hosted a gay couple at the White House Easter Egg Roll, who depend on federal contracts for their income, it looks even worse in the coverage because it has been framed as a slap in real, human faces.

Are we wrong here, and there is something actually quite complicated and difficult to implement in non-discrimination policies? Something about their effectiveness we should be skeptical about? Findings like those in this older study, before there were more widespread policies, can certainly be twisted up to make an argument favoring “private” employer policies over public ones. There have even been conservative gay men arguing that these policies have hurt them.[1]

While I agree that getting the federal government to adopt and enforce just about anything is grueling, there’s no way to rationalize this away as long as there are anti-discrimination policies already in place for other groups. No way for this not to look hypocritical. There are some “compromises” so absurd, they’re like agreeing to have an amputation instead of take anti-biotics and risk a stomachache.

Of course we know well there are some people who will take that risk, with pride, very literally, and even with their own children among certain faith healing communities. Surely our own president isn’t that irrational, right?

We might be looking at the wrong executive, when it’s the voices around him we should be examining.

Official portrait of Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement Valerie Jarrett (taken from Wikimedia Commons)

Let me switch our frame up a bit. Instead of “electoral”, let’s think “elective”. Imagine the presidency not as a horse race, but more like getting a college degree. Obama has a handful, spent a large portion of his life as an academic (and I was lucky enough to live near his law school, even share a smoke with him once since I was just across the street).

And it’s probably true that many of you, our readers, are students now or well remember your post secondary education. We can’t forget that not everybody is that privileged though. Whether you remember or are just hearing about this, classes may be taken for credit, some of which will be relevant to the field you’re getting a degree in, some which are for your “core” learning requirements in general education, and some which are “electives”. This last group includes classes that are not required because of the content. They could be any class. They just need to fill out your hours.

They represent choices, and what choice you make can say a great deal about how you think. A lot of us would choose what we heard from friends is a “blow-off” course. Easy Grade Point Average padding. Others would choose something of mild interest, something to keep things fresh, maybe discover something new without the high pressure factor of having to perform at your best in your major. Some deliberately challenge themselves with something out of left field, maybe a course designed for advanced students majoring in that material.

From purely anecdotal experience, as a former college instructor, I believe most choose the blow off course. It is enough of a struggle getting people to care about their own core requirements, things they absolutely have to pass and do well in to finish the degree, because they don’t come in seeing any value to any course outside their major. If instructors haven’t given a compelling argument for why their course matters in the first week, it’s near impossible to get them to care about anything but the bare minimums.

And let me be clear, there’s nothing at all immoral or unethical about choosing a blow off class. Imagine you’re a pre-med student, taking advanced biology and chemistry and such. Do you take the elective that requires a five-page essay every week, or do you take something like swing dancing? You could choose either, and neither choice is “bad” or “wrong”.

But I contend that LGBT issues are, for Obama’s administration, like a blow off elective class. Our lived experiences of discrimination are up for debate in the judiciary, for sale among legislators, and only of interest to the executive branch when they’re in danger of “failing the course”.

DADT? The military itself was moving faster on that issue, and marginalizing dissenters in the brass, for a score of reasons. Active duty soldiers and those pushed out by the policy did the lion’s share of the work. Rubber stamping all of that labor was the right thing to do, but it’s not leadership.

A leader would be talking about ENDA, improving it to be truly inclusive and pushing it forward, rubbing congress’ nose in their obstructionism. A leader would push the policy that covers nearly all Americans, not declaring their intent to “study” something that would only cover, at most, 5% of citizens.

I make a point of saying Obama’s administration here for two reasons. He should be held accountable, yes, but the influential voices around this decision maker bear as much, if not more responsibility.

And those voices belong to two camps. Those within the administration, like senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, and those without who claim to represent us. The decision to not sign an order, which would expand the original signed by LBJ in 1965 to finally cover us, came after a meeting between Jarrett and representatives from groups like The Human Rights Campaign.

Chad Griffin, soon to be leader of HRC, as Joe Solmonese steps down to join Obama's reelection campaign as a co-chair. Mr. Griffin is pictured at the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, California (Source from

I don’t blame students nearly as much for the phenomenon of blow off classes. They’re making a rational choice, even if it isn’t the high road. It’s instructors with low standards that make for blow off classes.

It is our own “leaders”, like the insider privilege addicted press corps who can only repeat releases handed to them, who are failing to instruct and failing to hold accountable. Our own so called leaders have, for some time now, preemptively compromised on nearly anything before debate even begins, transgender rights especially, continued to coddle Democratic politicians, and tried to shame “radicals” for demanding what’s truly fair even while they co-opt the very real sacrifices made by those who fight politics as usual with their own livelihoods and lives.

If you think radicals don’t have a vital role to play beyond sitting down and being patronized by the professional activist class, then look again at Santorum. Sure, he suspended his campaign, but he, along with every other feather of the right wing echo chamber are very, very useful for shifting the national dialogue. Taking for granted this or any administration’s support for LGBT equality is like taking for granted that Americans know better than to listen to shrill hot heads. It is a classist and comfortable naïveté that ignores the very real power of figures like Santorum, enabled by talk radio and cable news.

Working day to day doesn’t have the pathos advantage that serving in uniform does. You wear fatigues and the flag, you’re a symbol, but if you wear an apron or oil stained shirt with your name on it, you’re a sucker. The overwhelming majority of Americans are not in the armed forces, we work tedious, underpaid jobs and that’s if we’re lucky, but DADT was repealed before even a majority of local and state governments adopted anti-discrimination policies. As a practical matter, as a human rights matter, that’s backwards, and reflects how much our national discourse depends on appeasing powerful, private interests.

There are those calling out the administration. Trouble is, the professional activist class use weak, passive language, calling the decision “confounding and disappointing”. They sound confused and sad, like weak, non-leaders. They like to reserve their strong language for radicals instead, the people who know to characterize this decision as a betrayal.

Much like there are committed advocates of democracy, and then there are Democrats, it appears that there is a movement for human rights in this country, and then there is Human Rights ™. If the latter are supposed to be teaching our politicians how to advance equality for all Americans, then we can go on expecting LGBT rights to be a blow off class, especially when the student can make the teacher a co-chair in their campaign.


[1] At least one, anyway, from some think tank or another. It kills me that I can’t find his argument, and maybe you lovely readers can find it. It’s a doozy.









((Featured image is of the Human Rights Campaign logo, no permissions required))

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