June 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

Deb Price

Democratic inaction frustrates gay equality activists

In the early years of his presidency, John F. Kennedy tried to steer clear of the increasingly explosive struggle for legal equality for black Americans.

As Nick Bryant explains in his terrific book, "The Bystander": "At the time of his presidential victory, Kennedy had a unique opportunity to secure a peaceful transition toward a more integrated and equitable society. Instead, Kennedy stood aside.

"... (U)p until the Birmingham riot in 1963, when the crisis in race relations finally threatened to overwhelm the country, Kennedy abdicated his responsibility to lead the great social revolution of his age," Bryant writes.

Each civil rights movement has its own story of injustices, humiliations, setbacks and turning points. They can't be equated, nor need they be.

What they do share in common is inequality in law and social custom that simply isn't in keeping with the ideals of America. Later, these are seen as obvious wrongs. Civil rights struggles also feature politicians who must decide whether to be leaders or bystanders.

Today, only one group of Americans is discriminated against under federal law.

Gay Americans are being kicked out of the military and are denied federal benefits despite being legally wed. Meanwhile, no federal law protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans from being fired, turned away from renting or refused service at hotels or other businesses.

The November presidential election results signaled the opening of a huge window of opportunity for gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Yet, as a ticking clock points out at the Web site of a new grassroots uprising, President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress are in their fifth month of political power with "0% Equality Achieved."

The site is the creation of 24 frustrated but still hopeful gay-rights advocates who met in Dallas last month to come up with a set of eight guiding principles to turn up the urgency in Washington and get that equality measurement to 100 percent.

"Washington is stuck. Too many bills are stalled. Now is the time to get things moving," says Michael Guest, a former openly gay ambassador to Romania and one of the Dallas Principles' authors.

The principles include that separate can never be equal; no part of the community will be left behind, and politicians will be judged by results, not words.

"No delay. No excuses," the banner reads at http://www.TheDallasPrinciples.org">www.TheDallasPrinciples.org.

Here's what "stuck" sounds like:

  • Asked when the president plans to fulfill his campaign promise so gay couples receive federal benefits, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs responded on May 18, "I will -- I have to go check on that. I honestly don't know the answer to that."

  • Responding to much the same question on May 6, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied, "Our agenda is jobs, jobs, jobs."

    Principles author Lisa Polyak says of what she's seen to date: "I'm hugely, hugely disappointed. I feel anger and sadness and terrible frustration."

    Dana Beyer, another Principles author, adds, "Time is slipping away. The message so far from the White House and the solid Democratic Congress is that our issues really aren't that important."

    At a Democratic fundraiser in Beverly Hills on May 27, Obama ticked off a lengthy "more work to do" list.

    "You ain't seen nothing yet," the beaming president promised of the days ahead.

    His itemized list didn't include anything gay.

    Only Obama can answer the question that increasingly will be asked by gay and gay-friendly Americans: Will he be a bystander in the push for gay equality?

    dprice@detnews.com">dprice@detnews.com (202) 662-8736