Anthony D. Romero, a former public-interest attorney, is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is the ACLU's sixth executive director, and the first Latino and openly gay man to serve in that capacity. In 2007, Romero and co-author Dina Temple-Raston published In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror.
Question: How has the gay rights movement progressed since Stonewall?
Anthony Romero: We’ve progressed in the gay rights movement, but we haven’t progressed as a result of government polices, and certainly not as a result of leadership on the federal level. I think what’s remarkable is that we’ve made progress despite opposition from the federal government and some of the state governments. I’m 44 years old two weeks ago; when I was growing up I would have thought it impossible for gay people to marry. Now, we have it in many states, and in some of the most remarkable states you can actually be pronounced husband and husband and wife and wife. You can get married in Dubuque, but you can’t get married in Chelsea, or in San Francisco. Frankly, the fact that we made progress in places like that and Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire—I think that speaks volumes about the power and the dynamism of gay rights community. But we see still that federal government officials mumble when it comes to questions about gay rights, that these are not equal rights of ordinary American citizens, and so the Obama administration submits this brief to defend the Defense of Marriage act, an indefensible piece of law that was signed by president Clinton.
This shows you that Democrats can sometimes not be any better than Republicans in some of the key civil rights and the liberties issues, and here you have the Obama administration that filed this brief, defending the law in some of the most disgusting rhetoric in language. I understand the fact that this department has to defend the laws enacted by Congress, but the way that its on that brief is really offensive to many gay and lesbian people across this country, and the fact that they had such a tin ear—they couldn’t realize that the way they were going to defend this law was going to be in a way that would really infuriate gay and lesbian people across the country. We thought that they had embarked upon a very different time in our Nation’s history.
I do think it’s great that President Obama actually says the words gay and lesbian. I think that it was notable that at the NWICP convention Obama talked about gay people still not having their civil rights, and I think it’s great that he had this ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of Stonewall at the White House. But frankly, talk is cheap and there’s only so long that a very eloquent, and very thoughtful, and very charismatic president will be able to get away on talk alone. The policies, outcomes, and decisions of that government have to measure up to the talk that both led him into the White House and still allows him to lead the public in various significant ways.
At a point, we all tune up when people’s actions don’t measure up to their works.
Question: Is there any rationale for, “Don’t ask, don’t tell”?
Anthony Romero: No. I don’t think anyone legitimately can say that “don’t ask, don’t tell” has worked. Even the wife of the author of that terrible policy ran on the campaign saying it was a mistake to do “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in the first place. You created a witch hunt in the military: that you can be gay—you just can’t ask about it, you can’t tell anyone about it. But if you tell someone or someone asks about it then you could still be pushed out of the military. It’s ridiculous: they promised to undo “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, the Obama administration. But they’re saying now that they’ll get to it in their pseudo time.
It’s really quite different if you’re an openly gay or lesbian person serving in the military, putting your life down on the line for our country, and yet your government can discriminate against you. If you lose your job even as you lay down your life for your country, you could still be kicked out from that post or that position.
Frankly, there’s no reason why we ought to wait. It’s not as if we’re going to be able to fix the economy or healthcare, or the environment, or even these wars in the near future. But social change is not a sequential piece, it is not like your college pre-requisites where you take Economics 101 before you go to Economics, you know, 201. These issues all have to be dealt with aggressively, and the idea that we will wait to deal with them just shows that they’re not a huge priority for this administration the way we had hoped and the way that many have voted for them to bring about that change.
I find it remarkable that quite increasingly, the Obama administration is sustaining and weathering attacks not just from civil libertarians about human rights and civil liberties, but from the gay community, the women’s community, young people, and antiwar activists. Those were the base that created the seabed that got him elected, and yet some of the major issues that I think propelled some of the young people to vote for this president are now the ones that we find on the back burner. It’s actually not a very good political agenda. It doesn’t take a lot for a 25-year-old to become disenchanted once again with the political process, and when folks turned out in record numbers and gave record amounts of money it’s because they want to see swift, decisive change—and that has yet not come about.
Question: What can this administration do specifically to advance gay rights?
Anthony Romero: Well certainly by giving the full protection of health benefits to federal government employees, which is not what he’s done, would be an important first step. President Obama is like a CEO of a major corporation, it’s just like as if he were the CEO of Walt Disney or Apple, and if you’re concerned about the health and well-being of your employees, you want to protect them and their families. I think it is remarkable that this president has said that even though as CEO of the government workers of the United States of America, that he won’t provide healthcare benefits for same sex partners if we worked with the federal government. That’s something he can do, that’s something he ought to do. Frankly, if Apple can get around to it or Nike can get around to it, and Walt Disney can get around to it, I think the CEO of the United States of America can get around to that too. He doesn’t need Congress, he could just implement that. That is also another misstep on the gay rights front. You have DOLMA, you have the mumbling on “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”, you have the lack of providing full healthcare benefits for federal government employees. People begin to scratch their heads and wondering why we’re not going to see the type of change that were hoping for, and that’s the type of change that the president can bring about. He can also use the bully pulpit to be very clear around marriage; in fact, the president has said in his books and his public speaking that he struggles with the idea around marriage for lesbian and gay people.
We don’t have the same protection that straight people have. The President is protected by the law—he has two beautiful daughters and a wonderful first lady as his wife—and the law protects the family from discrimination. It protects them in case anything were to go wrong with either one of the parents. Gay people across this country don’t have the benefit of those legal protections, and no matter how much they say that they want to treat us like equal citizens and give us our full rights, the fact is, unless you move, either you implement on those rights, its just rhetoric, it’s just auditory language, and frankly the time has come for bold, decisive leadership—we’ve seen it in states all across this country.
Massachusetts has married gay people now for over a year and some months, and I don’t think marriage is any weaker in Massachusetts that it was three years ago. You’ve seen it in Connecticut. Decisive, clear action from the federal government is essential and necessary, and it is still not there.
Recorded on: July 20, 2009