Sunday, June 10, 2012

Symbolism matters

President Obama has, for the fourth year, issued a Presidential Proclamation of Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. White House staffers passed out copies of the proclamation at the NetRoots gathering, which is where ├╝berblogger Joe Jervis of JoeMyGod got his copy (pictured – click to embiggen).

Cynics point out that such proclamations don’t actually DO anything, they’re just nice, symbolic words. Of course they are: That’s the whole point.

President Obama issued proclamations in 2009 and again in 2010 and yet again in 2011. That’s actually an indication of why this matters.

GLBT Americans have been marginalised, whether through action or indifference, throughout most of the history of the United States. The modern GLBT rights movement began relatively recently, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, but it has made tremendous progress since then. Even so, there’s still much work left to do to get past that marginalisation.

When any elected official issues such a proclamation, it sends a clear message that GLBT people belong, that we’re part of the fabric of society and we ought to be full and equal citizens. I still remember the first time a Chicago mayor issued a GLBT Pride Proclamation—it seems unbelievable now that it was ever a struggle to get a mayor to do it, but it once was.

When the US President issues such a proclamation, the importance is even greater. It’s not a substitute for action, of course, and can’t undo lack of action or setbacks, but as an aspirational statement, they are important.

Bill Clinton was the first US President to issue such a proclamation. On June 11, 1999, he declared that month “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month”. It was the 30th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and near the end of his second term as president—after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was enacted and after he signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. However, no president had ever issued such a proclamation and he deserves credit for doing so (and he was attacked by the right, of course, for doing it).

Between Presidents Clinton and Obama was George W. Bush, whose Administration was far too anti-gay to ever issue a proclamation like this. It’s obvious that Romney wouldn’t either, being desperate to court favour with America’s religious extremists. The refusal to issue a proclamation also shows us the importance of the symbolism.

So, it’s true that these presidential proclamations are symbolic, but it is their very symbolism that makes them important. I sincerely hope that one day we get to the point at which these proclamations are a yawn, but no matter what some people say, we’re far from that day.

Symbolism matters.

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