Obama scared of taking action on queer rights

Alongside healthcare is was pinned as one of the key issues that created chaos for Bill Clinton in his first years, lead to the rise of the right and the eventual Democratic defeat in the 1994 mid-term elections.

The issue was allowing queer people to serve in the military; a debate that lead to the development of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, which allows queer people to serve, but not openly. Now, in 2009, Barack Obama seems to be scared that if he tackles the same issue head on, along with many others important to the queer rights movement, he will also succumb to the same fate of Clinton in the 90’s.

Obama has always had good rhetoric regarding queer rights. Throughout his campaign and presidency he has promised action on a majority of the key issues on the queer agenda, including repealing the two most controversial queer policies; the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) (which federally defines marriage being between a man and a woman and allows states to refuse to recognise same-sex marriages performed elsewhere). Obama has also agreed to sign laws that will enhance hate-crimes legislation, ensure queer adoption rights and outlaw discrimination in the workplace.

However, in the first six months of his presidential tenure very little work has been done on achieving these key issues. Not only has there been no legislative action on any of these items (except hate crimes legislation), Obama has also caused frustration through refusing to sign an executive order halting the enforcement of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy until it is officially overturned. This leaves open the question, is Obama just talk on queer rights or is he scared that tackling the issue will cause him political problems?

Whilst there are probably a number of reasons for Obama’s inaction, it seems almost certain that the biggest thing holding him back is a fear of a similar backlash to what Clinton received. Although Obama has been positive about queer rights, he often does so in a hidden manner, leaving positive actions largely unannounced and speeches to queer activists out of sight from the media. In other words, Obama is attempting to give the queer community exactly what it wants, but is attempting to do so in a way that won’t outrage his conservative adversaries (who he believes could make a political issue out of it).

Obviously, this is having a number of effects. First and foremost it is now delaying the attainment of extra rights for queer people. Second, and possibly more damagingly, it sends a clear message that discussing queer rights and taking positive action in a strong manner is still a difficult area for progressive politicians, therefore leaving others cautious about taking positive action in the future.

By not standing up and fighting loudly for these rights Obama is saying that it is still okay for there to be an opposition to queer rights and is making this opposition legitimate, in turn creating further equality problems in the future. Last, As long as Obama continues to delay, he will be making it harder for him to make the changes as required. With political landscapes changing quickly, opportunities to change policies can often be lost quickly and as long as Obama continues to delay he will make it harder for these policies to be changed. It is therefore important that continued pressure is placed on the Obama administration to affect these changes sooner rather than later, before it becomes too late.

Major step for Indian queer rights

It has been described as ‘India’s Stonewall’, an ’historic ruling’ and ‘a major victory in the long battle for equality on the sub-continent’.

On the 2nd of July, 2009 the New Delhi High Court in India overturned a 148 year old law, which banned ‘homosexual acts’ as ‘unnatural offences’ and imposed 10 year gaol sentences for those participating in these acts. The ruling, celebrated by many and angering others, is an historic moment for queer rights and is evidence of how strong the queer rights movement is becoming in India, but also of how much work needs to be done.

The previous law, called ‘article 377’ was devastating to the queer community in India. Whilst convictions under the legislation were extremely rare (with none for the past twenty years) the ban made being an openly gay person in India extremely difficult. Reports from queer activists have stated that this legislation has been used widely as an excuse for state and community sponsored harassment of queer people and activists. Whether being threatened to be charged by the law from police or family, being harassed whilst participating in activist activities or being unable to seek medical help if one suspects they are infected with HIV/AIDs or other STIs, this law left many in India fearful of coming out as an openly queer person.

The importance of this ruling therefore, is not just one of removing legal discrimination, but is also about the metaphorical ‘coming out’ of the Indian queer community. As a movement that is quite young (with open groups only emerging around 15 years ago) the Indian queer rights movement have gained a large amount of strength and support in the past ten or so years. Sending a message that it is okay to be queer, the movement has provided LGBTIQ people in India with a strong support system in the face of difficulties provided by the homosexuality ban. This has lead to an increased opening up of Indian society, where more people are feeling okay about coming out as well as questioning the continued discrimination in Indian society.

This is clearly evident in the decision by the High Court. Whilst this ruling was based around the constitutionality of this legislation, there was an underlining theme in the decision stating that this was not just about constitutional rights, but also about removing stigma and increasing inclusiveness for India’s queer population. In other words, the panel, who were clearly influenced by the change in attitudes created by the queer movement, recognised that the removal of the homosexuality ban was an essential move to remove discrimination and create more acceptance of the LGBTIQ community in India. In the long run, the question will be whether this ruling can create this effect.

There is no doubt that this ruling will have an impact. Although it does not remove all discrimination in Indian legislation and will not bring an end to stigma within the Indian community, it will provide some extra momentum for the queer rights movement in the country. With no longer being threatened with the possibility of imprisonment and/or state sponsored harassment if one comes out as openly queer, it is likely that this decision will encourage more openness towards homosexuality, whether people are feeling more confident to come out as a queer person themselves or know someone who has. This in turn is likely lead to a growth in acceptance of homosexuality in India, which will only add to equality.

Equality comes after many steps and India certainly took a large one in July.