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GetEQUAL’s back story on the $1.4m Obama LGBT fundraiser

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Note from Joe: Heather Cronk is the managing director of GetEQUAL and has recounted, below, the "back story" behind Thursday night's $1.4 million Obama LGBT fundraiser. As we recently published, and as MetroWeekly discovered in interviews, so far, it sure seems that there were no real "asks" made of the President on a night when 40 LGBT high-dollar donors dined with him.

By telling the backstory about what happened with the Obama LGBT fundraiser this week, GetEQUAL will likely continue to be black-listed among the donor community. Given what we know about how things roll, the people who work for some of those donors who attended the high dollar event will likely do everything possible to ensure the group doesn't get any resources at all. So if you appreciate this post, head over to and show them some love.

Here's Heather...

Late last week, GetEQUAL got word that there was going to be a high-profile Obama/DNC fundraiser taking place in DC. There was no announcement for the event, and it seemed like the Obama campaign was trying to keep it secret. Joe Sudbay "broke" the story on AMERICAblog Gay (thankfully). Prior to hearing about the DC LGBT fundraiser, we at GetEQUAL had been busy planning to have a presence at upcoming fundraisers in places like Chicago and San Francisco to highlight and pressure the President broadly on LGBT issues, but this was an LGBT-specific event that opened up a new opportunity.

For those who don't understand our role in the movement, let me be clear -- our role is to always, relentlessly advocate for full equality on behalf of the LGBT community, no matter how inconvenient it may seem or feel to others, and no matter what election season we are in or what other crises we may be facing. We've learned (and history proves) that our friends rarely fight for our equality when it is convenient.  So we must always show up and apply that pressure, whether it's pressure on a "friend" or pressure on a foe. (Can you name one other LGBT advocacy group that you could say relentlessly advocates for full equality no matter the consequences? Why shouldn't we have at least one?)

So, while others may have seen the DC LGBT fundraiser as another opportunity for President Obama -- clearly a supporter of LGBT rights, even while he "evolves" on issues as fundamental as marriage and employment discrimination -- to come in, have a few laughs, talk about repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and collect a lot of checks, we at GetEQUAL saw it as a golden opportunity to push for our equality.

Some argued with us, telling us that we were being unreasonable by contemplating a protest against a President who has done far more than any Republican candidate in the race would. They said that any of the GOP candidates would clearly attempt to demolish what progress we've made and prevent what progress we've dreamed of. But we reminded them that, for us, this was not a question about who wins the Presidential election at the end of the year -- it was a question of whether this sitting President could and should do more to make us equal Americans.

Our answer was a clear yes, he could and should do more, especially since there were several issues at the forefront that were being ignored by the White House and DNC.

Some argued with us that we should be protesting our real enemies (like anti-gay mega churches and anti-gay Republicans) not our friends. I find this odd, because the folks that say protesting your enemies is the key to equality never spent an ounce of energy protesting President Bush or others over the recent past years. They know, like we do, that our real enemies hate us and most of the time protesting them does nothing to change their minds. You have to target those in power who can make the change you seek and who are willing, or at least open, to make change -- but are doing it too slowly or or are too scared to take the first steps. While I love protesting religious bigots as much as the next person, and while that's strategic when it can make a positive impact on the lives of youth who yearn to see a pro-LGBT message, smart people would target those who have the power to make change and have promised to make change.

That's why President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and others have repeatedly stated that they want to do the right thing, but we need to make them do it. During the heat of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal battle, for me, it was never about whether President Obama wanted to repeal the law. I have full confidence that he did. Rather, it was about whether the timeline and strategy they had chosen was going to lead to disaster -- it was becoming clear that they wanted to wait until after the 2010 midterms and try to repeal it in 2011. If that were to have come true after the change in power in the House of Representatives, we would still be discussing how to repeal it today instead of celebrating the fact that its finally history and the world as we know it didn't come to a sudden end.

Again, our barometer is whether our elected officials embrace our full equality and are actively making strides to get us equal -- anything short of that is work that we have to do to get him or her to that point. Is that so shocking and unreasonable? If so, maybe we as a movement really need to reassess our values and priorities.

So back to the fundraiser...

We heard who was going, who was hosting, where it was going to be, and how much was going to be raised. So we started planning the various ways in which we could have a presence in order to make clear that many in the LGBT grassroots are looking for and expecting more from this president. GetEQUAL DC swung into action, brainstorming various options. We know and respect the women who were hosting. I have to point out here that Dr. Nan Schaffer and Karen Dixon are not in any way to be seen as the opposition -- they were hosting a fundraiser that provided an opportunity for many folks with resources to get directly in front of the President and take a stand for their own equality. We decided to reach out to them and see if there was any way that we could get inside the event in order to ensure that someone would respectfully make concrete asks of the President -- especially if not a single donor was willing to do so.

We were interested in progress... specifically, we were interested in the President signing an Executive Order sitting on his desk right now that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity within companies that contract with the federal government. That's not a full Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but it's pretty darn close -- federal contractors employ roughly 26 million Americans, which represent 22% of the entire workforce and the Williams Institute found that this executive order would extend protections to 16.5 million employees who currently do not have them. We were also interested in why the DNC has so far refused to commit any resources to the NC ballot initiative fight that will take place a short time before the Democratic Party shows up in Charlotte and spends millions and millions of dollars on lavish parties and convention activities.

We understood that even if we had positive movement on both of those issues we would still be a long way off from full equality, but every little bit helps. And, more importantly, activists have been pounding the pavement and creating enough sweat equity to get these issues enough attention that they could become inconvenient to ignore anymore by the White House and DNC. So ask yourself, what would be a strategic way to help? I would say that a $1.4 million fundraiser for the person who has the ability to, overnight, make both of these issues a reality would be a great place to leverage. Especially since grassroots activists have already laid the groundwork and would never have the access that those attending did. Still call us crazy? Still think we are being out of line?

Of course, we knew that our email would be passed around among the organizers of the event, which it was -- and we immediately started receiving phone calls. Suffice it to say folks weren't happy. One of the people who called said that the donors were, indeed, planning to ask for more from the President. So, upon further conversation and many assurances, we decided that it would be more strategic for those donors on the inside -- within two feet of the President himself -- to ask for more than it was for us to protest outside a security perimeter that would have put us far from the house. I mean, if these donors already had plans to make asks, that was what we wanted, right?

Wrong. Unfortunately, after making clear that we expected that those in attendance would firmly and politely demand that the Executive Order waiting on President Obama's desk be signed in very short order, we learned that there was no such ask. From what we can gather there was no pressure on the President. There was no, "Mr. President, we're appreciative of what you've done so far -- and we hope that you'll go further in order to try to solve the problems that our LGBT sisters and brothers from Idaho to Mississippi to right here in DC are facing with unemployment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Will you sign the Executive Order, Mr. President?"

In fact, not only was there no pressure -- but Elizabeth Birch, the former head of HRC, went so far as to say that she didn't think the Executive Order was a good idea right now. She said that Executive Orders have "wobbly legs." Not to put too fine a point on it, but the original Executive Order that the ENDA Executive Order is based upon was signed 70 years ago by President Roosevelt. And President Clinton signed two groundbreaking Executive Orders over 15 years ago -- one that barred the federal government from using sexual orientation as the sole basis to deny security clearances and one that barred the federal government from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Guess what? Both Executive Orders are in-tact and stable. President Bush didn't abolish either Executive Order and President Obama built on President Clinton's Executive Order, adding gender-identity to the federal government employment non-discrimination order.

So, the historical facts don't bear out Birch's argument -- and both HRC and NGLTF asked for this same Executive Order during the Obama transition meetings in November 2008. So we're the crazy ones for bringing up? Or was it just that we brought it up at an inconvenient time?

So what's next? Well, we made clear to the flurry of people who freaked out about the prospect of a protest that we were prepared to protest at other fundraising events across the country if they couldn't see to it that -- at the very least -- this ENDA Executive Order was signed. We've heard that it's sitting on the President's desk, and that the White House is considering waiting to sign it to see if they "have to" or it can be rolled out as a publicity stunt during Pride Month in June. That would be craven and disgusting -- while millions of LGBT Americans suffer at the hands of employment discrimination, I would hope that the White House would be working with all haste and with all urgency to get this thing signed. So we'll see what happens -- the ball is in the White House's court now.

What did we learn from these events? It's clear that GetEQUAL's work over the past 20 months has built toward this moment, when we were able to exert some power based on the knowledge that we're willing to do absolutely anything to get equal. We don't care about influence, we don't care about access, and we don't care about looking "unstrategic" in front of folks who are frantically calling to get us to stop our organizing. The mere fact that those phone calls happened means that we are, in fact, strategic. And this has proven to be the case over and over again, across issues -- we saw the environmental movement use the same tactics we did with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and they're now on the verge of beating back Big Oil's Keystone Pipeline. Over and over again, disrupting the status quo works -- even if it's not the greatest "business plan."

We also keep learning that folks with access to power will do and say just about anything to keep that access.

I hope that's helpful in pulling the curtain back on this event, and on adding some context to the reports that AMERICAblog Gay, MetroWeekly, LGBT POV, The Advocate, and other outlets have published on the event. And I hope you'll consider how you can "own your equality" whether you're in DC or New York or Alabama or Montana. We'll keep pressing for full LGBT equality -- no compromises and no excuses. Whether friend or foe, we're going to keep the pressure up until we get equal -- will you join us?

Heather Cronk

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