I am back at my desk after a whirlwind—and pretty much last minute—trip to Washington, DC with my 13-year-old son, Julian. When an invitation to attend a reception at the White House arrived last week, my spouse Sandy and I talked and agreed that Julian—whose 13th birthday was on Saturday, June 27—should be the one to accompany me. Some months ago, Julian had said that for his “milestone 13th birthday” he wanted to do something he had never done before. (To which I raised an eyebrow of parental concern and figured I’d better take the lead in planning such adventures.) But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine what that adventure would turn out to be.
We landed in DC late Sunday night, June 28, after a six-hour delay out of SFO. (Shout out here to the “family” we bonded with on the plane, Kathy and Laura and our fabulous flight attendant Matt.) We had a late dinner with Sandy’s long-time friend and Julian’s god-father Richard, and the next morning took the Metro to the Smithsonian and walked to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It was a beautiful day in DC, and Julian was pretty awe-struck by seeing these sights “for real.” After a quick lunch with Julian’s grandparents, Patsy and Andy, we went back to our hotel to get ready for the event that had brought us across the country.
With Julian in a borrowed suit and new tie and me in my dyke best, we arrived at the White House and met up with NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter and his wife Robin. We chatted with many of the other guests as we waited to pass through the security checks. I saw many old friends and current colleagues. As we stood in the East Room of the White House, I’m sure I speak for many when I say how incredible it felt to see first-hand the rooms and locations we had only ever read about or seen on the TV news.
Julian, based on his age and the generous spirit in the room, got a front-row spot, right next to the small stage and Presidential podium. When the President and First Lady emerged from the Green Room into the East Room, they made their way up the aisle shaking hands and greeting folks. As they stepped onto the stage they both saw Julian and shook his hand, the President saying “Hi there buddy, how you doing?”
I was struck by several things in the President’s comments. First, he acknowledged the frustration of our community at the pace of the Administration’s efforts on behalf of full equality and an end to discrimination. Second, he said that he expected to be judged on actions and not words—“not by the promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps.” Finally, he committed to working with Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and Hate Crimes legislation (Judy Shepard and her husband Dennis were in the room). He did not set a timetable for any of these commitments, and I deeply wish President Obama were just a bit less orthodox. He clearly wants a tipping point of consensus on these issues, and particularly with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” his leadership now in at least issuing a “Stop-Loss” order would be entirely justified and a demonstrable action to back up his inspiring rhetoric.
It was clear to me that the President believes in full equality as a core value, a human value. That fact is reassuring. It is also clear that we as a community must continue a relentless drumbeat, insisting that the President act NOW to do all he can to make that commitment to equality a reality.
The work we do now will be every bit as important as the work of the Administration. Traveling to Washington reminds me that activism is the key to achieving civil rights in this country. The energy and time and money we all spent electing President Obama and a fair-minded Congress were only the first step. Now is the time to take the next activist step. We must dig in to do some work, for what we need done in Washington will not happen by magic, with this President or any other.
I am not talking about cocktail party activism or in-the-street activism, though I have done both and am not opposed to either.
Right now, this summer, constituent activism is key in Washington. We must press both the Administration and Congress to act swiftly to repeal laws that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and our families, and to enact laws that treat individuals and our families fairly and with dignity and respect.
The pressure directed to the President over the past few weeks has been essential and in my view, quite frankly, we should keep that up. The Obama Administration needs to hear from us. Over the coming weeks, NCLR will help you make your voice heard—by the Administration and Congress. Next week I’ll give you specific action items to help move our President and members of Congress.
In the past couple of weeks we have already seen some small steps. By holding this event marking the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, the President conveyed to the nation that we are all engaged in a decades-long struggle for civil rights, for fair treatment, and equality under the law. The White House reception provided a platform for the President to reiterate that he is an advocate for our community, that he understands the pain and damage done by government-sanctioned discrimination. Now he must act—really act—to end that pain and insult.
My son is still basking in the glow of meeting the President and hearing him speak. He, as a 13-year-old bi-racial kid, with both an African-American and a white lesbian mom, believed the President’s words. He sees this man as a champion for his family and other families like his. I profoundly hope that my son’s image of this President will not be tarnished by half-measures and inaction. Right now Julian thinks he got about the best 13-year-old birthday any kid could ever get. Please Mr. President, honor his trust.