Why "Don't Ask, Don't Give" Is a Mistake

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Almost everyone in the LGBT community is disappointed with the Obama administration. Granting hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners was a step in the right direction, but then came more of the same: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) -- the most visible gay issue nationwide besides marriage equality -- has yet to be repealed. This latest failure to achieve equality has come to embody the totality of Democratic inaction in recent years regarding gay rights, and LGBT resentment is mounting as the party continues to balk at the gay agenda.

Some -- John Aravosis and Joe Sudbay, to be precise -- have made it their mission to finally stick it to the Left after years of waiting in vain for change. Their brainchild, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Give” campaign (DADG), is a boycott of the DNC pending the repeal of DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Unfortunately, DADG won't force Democrats’ hand on these issues. Even worse, it will likely damage the gay rights movement in the long-run.

 DADG advocates have a straightforward argument, namely, that we should promote only the political viability of those willing to push for LGBT rights. If that means promoting no major party at all, then so be it. Why give our money to people who won’t be our staunch advocates? Consider two extremes. At best, the financial contributions of the gay community are so vital to the Democrats that the party will be forced to act on DOMA, DADT and ENDA to maintain political primacy. At worst, the boycott will have absolutely no legislative effects, but some less tangible ones if it is supported widely enough. For one, DADG is a way to consolidate and unite the LGBT community around a central, nationally-visible issue. Individual bloggers can rant all they want, but if a boycott had a large enough following, it would demonstrate the ability of the gay community to take truly collective action, to organize itself to accomplish something at the national level. That kind of visibility counts.


However, DADG wouldn’t be the only initiative to accomplish this type of unification and visibility (consider the Equality Marches in Washington, DC). This begs the question: why do it? Because contributions of the gay community are necessary for the financial viability of Democrats? In other words, because DADG has a real shot at getting DADT and DOMA repealed, and ENDA passed? Probably not. LGBT people are such a small minority in this country, it is hard to believe that their votes, campaign contributions, and those of their die-hard allies are a necessary condition for the success of the Democratic party, all else equal. If this were the case, given the vibrant history of LGBT activism in this country, we would expect to have seen real progress on gay issues in past Democratic administrations. In short, it is unrealistic to think that DADG will actually accomplish its stated goals. Unfortunately, in this country, gays just don’t have the needed political clout for the campaign to make a difference.
 
    If, as I’ve argued, the DADG boycott won’t accomplish its goals, then we are left with only one reason for supporting it, which I discussed earlier. DADG might function much like the National Equality March, as a unification opportunity for the LGBT community. The relevant question is then: are there cheaper ways to unify the community to achieve just as impressive a display of solidarity? If there are, which is probably the case, then supporting DADG is unnecessarily costly and the boycott should be lifted in favor of other forms of activism.
 
    But even if DADG were in fact the best option at this time for unifying the LGBT community at least possible cost compared to other kinds of activism, there are still overwhelming reasons to oppose it. “Why not show our contempt for the Democrats’ broken promises?” some ask. I think it is here where the real party-lines are drawn between supporters and opponents of DADG.
 
    The fact is, Democrats already know just how upset we are. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to care, hence their continued inaction on gay issues. If the boycott -- with no hope of success -- is purely a manifestation of our anger towards Democrats, then we need to think about whether it is worth our precious financial resources to drive home the extent of that anger. I would say “no.” Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but keep in mind that the money used to organize and publicize DADG could be spent elsewhere: to hire attorneys; in HIV/AIDS clinics; in LGBT centers nationwide; to promote openly gay politicians; the list goes on.
 
    What’s worse than wasting resources that could be put to more productive use on a campaign that will inevitably fail? How about angering the only powerful political party that is friendly towards LGBTs and endangering the special Democrat-LGBT relationship? We all believe that Democrats have already broken their promises and that our affiliation to the party is basically giving us nothing. Does it really make sense, though, for us to add more fuel to the fire?

Even if important pro-LGBT changes haven’t happened under this Democratic administration, or under others in the past, here is the indisputable reality: a Democratic majority across our government is a necessary condition (but not sufficient!) for the tide to turn decisively in favor of gay rights. For us to preserve any hope of progress on the issues, we need to do all that we can to ensure that Democrats are elected to office, even if they fail to make good on advancing LGBT equality. Everyone, Democrats included, recognizes that doing so is our only choice. No rational person believes that a financial boycott of the DNC spearheaded by the LGBT community will translate to an LGBT boycott of Democrats at the polls. What other party would we vote for? We should stop pretending that we have political power over the Democrats with this boycott, and take stock of the political reality.

Like it or not, the Democratic party is our best option for change, and we need to stick by it. Protests are one thing. They show that we’re here, we’re queer, and that the nation -- not just Democrats -- should get used to it. Democrats in office must cope with the fact that segments of our community will organize and seek voice opportunities in the political process so long as our needs are not met, but know that despite our general anger, we support them. Specifically withholding financial contributions to the Democratic party, however  -- to its detriment or not -- is quite another gesture. And a dangerous one.

Democrats don’t support the big points of the gay agenda (DOMA and DADT repeal, etc.) because doing so is not politically viable. At least due to campaign contributions from the LGBT lobby, the Democrats now feel an iota of indebtedness to the community for its support. Do you think Obama’s decision to grant hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners -- even while cast in a more inclusive language -- was not a small gesture specifically to appease LGBTs after their loyalty to him at the polls? If we want to lock in Democrats’ support for making small steps towards full equality -- small steps that can be couched in such a way as to minimize inevitable backlash from the Right -- then LGBT individuals and their allies need to continue to support Democrats in return. It’s that simple.

DADG threatens to completely undermine this support. If the goodwill and faith that the LGBT community has historically placed in the Democratic Party were to disappear -- symbolized by a noticeably smaller financial contribution from the LGBT lobby due to DADG -- the Democrats would no longer have any reason to incur the slightest political costs to appease supporters of gay rights. Things like granting hospital visitation rights will be of the past. I want you to ask yourself, and answer honestly: where will we be as a community for taking the moral high ground? Supporters of DADG, I’m begging you, please: before you mount your high horses, stop and take stock of DADG’s political consequences -- not for the Democrats, but for the LGBT movement.

3 Comments

As a supporter of "Don't Ask, Don't Give," I take issue with your statement that "Democrats don’t support the big points of the gay agenda (DOMA and DADT repeal, etc.) because doing so is not politically viable." What is the evidence for this? DADT repeal polls at somewhere around 70% (I'm not sure about the latest polling on DOMA). Barack Obama & Hillary Clinton campaigned hard on repeal of both DADT & DOMA and Democrats won won a landslide victory in the Presidential and Congressional elections.

The thinking behind "Don't Ask, Don't Give" is that repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell IS politically viable, but the Democratic Party does not feel any pressure to act. Hence withholding campaign contributions from the Party until they do so. Certainly the Democrats are better than Republicans on LGBT issues, but they control the entire government, so the ultimately responsibility to act rests entirely with the Democratic Party.

It's important to note that supporters of "Don't Ask, Don't Give" are not advocating withholding support from Democrats, but rather the Democratic Party apparatus (DNC, OFA, etc.) -- instead, they argue, your money is better spent giving to individual candidates who support LGBT issues. I agree.

Jason,

Accepting your premise that fighting for gay rights is not "politically viable," so what?

LBJ signed civil rights legislation to the detriment of his party. Minority rights are usually never politically viable. Obama didn't campaign saying, "I will do X, Y, Z for the LGBT community as long as it is politically viable." He told us that he would do it because it is the right thing to do.

Where do minorities turn to if their existence as equal citizens is not deemed politically viable and our leaders cowardly don't act on their supposed convictions? The courts- but Obama has recently said that the Warren and Burger Courts overstepped and the only thing he could be referring to is their consistent and steadfast decisions expanding civil liberties and rights to minorities. In The Audacity of Hope he talks about progressives relying too much on the courts for reform. So, essentially, President Obama would have us wait until conditions are perfect. Politics and policy are messy. I can't envision a time when the stars will be perfectly aligned for LGBT equality.

Articles like yours enable this type of inaction because our leaders can continue to sit on their hands and avoid tough fights because they know their liberal base will be quick to blame political "constraints" as if they are entrenched beyond change.

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