Obama Could Do Better, But Better Him Than Me

The gay community is a buzz over Obama’s mention of gay rights in his inaugural address, stating he wanted equality for “our gay brothers and sisters.” My internet feeds are full of “thank you, Obama” posts and happy memes are already flooding facebook and tumblr, but I won’t be reblogging them. Not to be that person who always finds something to pick at, but let’s be real: I am totally that person. At the risk of getting tiny, rainbow-colored USA flags thrown at me, I have to say I don’t think Obama’s speech was the best thing ever. Yes, it was good. I would even call it great, but I can think of at least one way that it could have been a whole lot better.

You all know what I’m going to say, and I am sure most of you already thought of this yourselves. Obama’s quote “gay brothers and sisters” doesn’t include trans* people, among others. I know, I know. I am sure he was using ‘gay’ to represent the big acronym, but still; If you’re gonna talk about inclusion, your language should be inclusive. Obama has used the expression LGBT before, and he has used the words transgender and gender identity and expression. He knows what they are, and based on his work, conceptually understands the difference. Still, he cut corners and said “gay” and that is annoying. I’ve already run into some folks talking down at me saying “well, you shouldn’t negate the significance of this… The language isn’t that important…” But that is really easy to say if you got counted. If you didn’t, you’re gonna be sitting on the sidelines saying “WTF?” Like I said, I understand the significance of what he said. That doesn’t mean it was significant enough to make me feel recognized. Not trying to sound greedy, but he is MY president who is running MY country. I voted for him, so I think I have a right to want more. Gay is a big word and, like Queer, it means a lot. I use Queer to wrap trans* and “gay” together commonly, but if I am teaching a lecture, writing a speech, or promoting an argument, you better believe I am sure to note the differences between the communities. It may sound picky, but it is relevant. Relevance is what counts in an argument  and when Obama did his speech, he was promoting the argument that “gay” rights mattered. He was speaking to the nation, but he was also attempting to speak to our community and say “I see you.”  But for a transgender person who is straight and doesn’t mesh with the LGBT umbrella, that speech did not speak to them. To a person who is genderqueer and the gendered words “brothers and sisters” feels more erasing than embracing, that speech did not speak to them. For a trans* person who sees “gay” as close to their heart, but not a descriptor of their own identity, that speech did not speak to them. I could create the same argument for pansexuals, asexuals, bisexuals, intersex people, fluid folks, the list goes on because there is a lot about our language that is lacking. My point isn’t about tiny details of what isn’t ‘correct’ in his speech. It is that the Trans* community is a separate community from gay, despite how we may overlap. So if we talk about inclusion, we we have to recognize relevant differences. We won’t ever accomplish change if we don’t continue to lovingly push ourselves and others to do better.

Overall, I dig Obama. And when I say I “dig” Obama, that is with the disclaimer that I can never “dig” a president without clarifying that I know that, above all, Obama is a politician. When I was a baby-activist working in the  early 2000s anti-war movement, politicians burned me. I can’t say I ever really put my faith in the governmental system, but there was a time when I was really invested in it, and it broke my heart. I can’t feel mad about it now because the scar I got then spurred me into a lifelong dedication to grassroots, community focused organizing. I learned that while we can technically never trust anyone to do what we know to be right, there are value systems we can work inside to enhance our chances.  I can 100% stand behind a cause or a movement because it is about values, but when you talk about backing a person who is fallible and corruptible, it’s a whole different story. In order to find trust in another person, we must find common values. In activism, the foundational value is making change for the greater good. Politicians are different animal, more dependent on the ebb and flow of society, their political party, and their funders than one would find advisable for a so-called impartial representative of the masses. I’m not trying to outright hate on politicians and say that they are too soulless to be activists. Many politicians are also activists and there are many activists who work in politics. There are also plenty (too many) activists that are really politicians (and are in the wrong field). I find that often we make the mistake of assuming that politicians are by default activists. They are not. Activists and politicians have many shared qualities; Both conceptually work for the greater good by using their intellectual power and social talents to gain resources and accomplish change, and most foundationally, they are serving something larger than themselves. The difference is the end game;  For politicians, the winning goal is look out for #1. Politicians can be bought and sold, they can be controlled, and they can be destroyed. Not every president is an activist, but every President is a politician. Politicians work for themselves, and they work for their party. They can only go as far as their political advisers will let them. Obama surely has his own interests (personal and professional) in supporting the “gay” community, but you better believe that if it started to cause too much trouble he would drop us like a hot coal. It is entirely possible that he purposefully didn’t use the word “transgender” because he considered it to be too controversial. Politicians may have inner ethics, but they have to challenge them to the point of erasing them sometimes. Admittedly, activists are not inherently “good” either. The KKK is an activist organization (shudder). But if we aim this conversation at a drive to succeed for the “greater good” as we, social justice advocates, understand it, then we can talk about activism as a positive force. Now, I am speaking as an activist  so I am without a doubt glorifying the trade, but someone’s gotta do it. Unlike politicians, your average activist goes about their work speaking loudly for about a cause and staying relatively silent about themselves. Activists are not about #1; they are about #10000000000001. It is about making the big see the small, helping the quiet be loud, and showing the weak that weakness is just another kind of strength. Now you might argue that a politician can do all those things too, and you’d be right. But as you can see by my beautiful graph, the differences between politicians and activists are small, but significant. Also, there is a significant overlap between politicians and non-profit organizations, which can result in more positive or negative effects depending on how the organization is run. Politics and activism are woven together, and also placed far apart.

activists vs politicians

I know I’m giving politicians a hard time here, but there is a reason for it. We all know the saying that politics are dirty, and so politicians, who engage in politics, by default must be even dirtier. And while I would consider (possibly with some self-serving naivete) that Obama is one of the “cleaner” presidents our country has had, I’m not fooled. He is a US President; he is going to kill people, buy weapons, ignore problems; he is going to bargain (healthcare bill), he is going to compromise (troops overseas), and he is going to play games in the fucked up playground that is the international market/war field. No US President is a perfect humanitarian. The way we run the world makes it impossible and until we, the human race, find ourselves able to value humanity over money or power or fear, it will always be that way. Since I have no direct sense of control of how Obama, or any other politician will act, how honorable they will be, if what they say is what they mean, or if they mean what they say, I’ll always be giving politicians the sideways eye unless they can prove otherwise, which FYI a couple folks have. Still, I will never 100% stand behind a true politician, no matter how many vocab words they know. And no matter how much I may work in policy, lobby, campaign, and canoodle in the politics game, I will never be a politician. However, I will vote for one because I understand that in this system, change can not live by activism alone. Someone has to be willing to not only play the politics game, but become an actual political player, and just like anything, it is a balance of gifts and sacrifices. I can, will, and do sacrifice a lot for the sake of activism, and the things I can and won’t do, people like Obama will. And in his own facilitation of the politician craft, Obama has been able to do what no one else has. His inaugural speech, and his administration in general,  have majorly recognized and supported the intersectional LGBTQPIA movement(s). He has been steering his administration far beyond lip-service that other presidents rarely even attempted. He has proven to be more that just a one-trick pony by continuing to promote the conversation and actively participating in significant policy changes as well as promoting cultural changes that make people, including trans* people, trust him. This past year, many trans* organizers, myself included, worked to re-elect Obama, not just because the alternative would set back our movement, but because we actually believe that for the first time a president could realistically help propel it forward.  While I am a realist about who and what Obama is, I appreciate the unprecedented effort Obama has made for us. He does all the shit I can’t and won’t do, and he’s made it to a pretty good place. Now, do it better.

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