A few months ago, my organization TuthWinsOut.org caused a national uproar after we criticized Barack Obama for embracing "ex-gay" singer Donnie McClurkin. The Christian crooner was part of Obama's gospel tour of South Carolina, which was an attempt to lure African American voters away from the Clinton campaign.
Since then, Obama has shown himself to be a legitimate contender and, as a result, has secured much of the black vote in a state where they represent nearly half of all Democratic primary voters. At the same time, the rise of Obama has invigorated – and frightened – many gay voters, who write me each day to express confusion over what his candidacy represents.
Further complicating matters, was Obama's bold speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in front of 2,500 people at Atlanta's renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church. Instead of pandering to the crowd, Obama used the opportunity to address homophobia in the African American community.
"For most of this country's history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man's inhumanity to man," Obama preached. "And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them."
Unfortunately, as these words were leaving Obama's mouth, he was endorsed by the homophobic Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who is senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church and a spiritual advisor to President George W. Bush.
The Obama campaign's speed dating with anti-gay demagogues, coupled with pro-gay statements, has had the effect of befuddling many GLBT voters. I hear from some people who think he is courageous for speaking up on behalf of gays at black churches, where other voters think he is a cynical political opportunist playing both sides of the fence. I believe each side has a legitimate point.
The most maddening – and absurd – spin comes from Obama supporters who claim that his flirtation with both gay advocates and anti-gay bigots is evidence that he can bring Americans together. Let's be clear, he has not brought anyone together. The only "cause" that such diverse constituencies have rallied round is Obama's political career. If he were to be elected, I hardly see this translating into any grand coalition to pass pro-gay legislation. Indeed, the homophobic African American leaders are only tolerating his gay-positive positions because their priority is electing America's first African American president.
There are also some politically naïve GLBT people who say it does not matter who Obama's friends are. Of course, we all know that candidates owe elections to their supporters and thus hand out favors while in office. If Obama can put McClurkin on stage in the name of "unity" – then why can't he place the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on the backburner, also in the name of unity? If ENDA gets in the way of a coalition to tackle Social Security or healthcare, might the GLBT community be told to pipe it down and take one for the team? And, if we insist on equality in an Obama administration, will we be made to feel like troublemakers who are putting ourselves above the larger coalition? Such questions must be answered definitively, because if Obama secures the nomination or gets elected, his power increases exponentially, as access decreases at the same rate.
So, when people ask me what to do in regards to Obama, I make three points:
1) His association with arch-homophobes actually does matter and should play a factor in how you vote. It is fair to judge people by the company they keep, and we must admit that some of Obama's associates are troubling.
2) That said, Obama has been a solid supporter of GLBT rights and his overall record should be under consideration. He should be given points for speaking in favor of equality at black churches.
3) All of the leading Democrats are pretty good on GLBT issues (marriage excluded), so they have essentially canceled each other out on this topic. Therefore, most gay people should make their decisions based on other concerns, like the war or the economy.
If Obama gets elected, either GLBT people or African American conservatives will be disappointed by the time his reelection bid rolls around. It is crucial that people realize that Obama's force of personality will not sustain this coalition, thus he must continue to announce his true intensions, so there is not great surprise and frustration after his inauguration.