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The Citizen

From a Position of Moral Strength: Tim McCarthy on the President, the Republican Party, and Life as a Second-Class Citizen

By Matt Bieber, Features Columnist, MPP/MDiv ‘13

Timothy Patrick McCarthy is core faculty and director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He also served as a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council.

McCarthy’s books include: The Radical Reader:  A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (New Press, 2003), now in its second printing; Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New Press, 2006); and Protest Nation: Words That Inspired a Century of American Radicalism (New Press, 2010).

In 2010 you pointed out that a range of high-profile Republicans, including Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, Ken Mehlman, and Ted Olson, have come out in favor of same-sex marriage, and you also suggested that we might begin to see the Republican Party courting queer folk more actively – particularly if the Democratic Party continued, in your words, “picking and choosing which portion of our humanity is safe to support at any given Tim McCarthymoment.”

How do you conceive of the relationship between the Republican Party and the LGBT community today?

Historians should never predict the future, or try to predict the future. You know, that piece was meant to be very provocative, and it was. And there were a lot of people that gave me a lot of push-back for it.

At the end of the day, the Republican Party has got to prove something to us, period. This, “Oh, let’s all come together and have this conversation…” No, you’ve done nothing for us but deny us. You have some gays in your log cabin, or your “tent,” or whatever spatial metaphor you’d like to use. Certainly, we know that there are more than enough queer folks in your ranks, most of them in the closet. Get your act together. That would be my very frank assessment of where they stand. As an openly gay man in America, I have absolutely no faith that the Republican Party, as a political party, will in any reasonable amount of time be described as an ally in the struggle for LGBT rights. They still oppose the struggle for LGBT equality.

That said, everyone has to navigate their own political affiliations. I’m still a registered Democrat for a whole variety of reasons, which I can justify, more or less, on any given day. You know, we live in a two-party system, where you can register as an independent or something else. But at the end of the day, if you want to have any kind of traction, feel like you’re part of the political process, you have to choose. It’s an either-or thing. I lament that; I wish that weren’t the case. I wish we had a political system that was far more variegated and homogenous and where there’s more power to be shared among different kinds of interests, but we don’t have that.


Oh, did I say “homogenous”?


No, I mean “homosexual.” [Laughs] Heterogeneous. Yeah, much more heterogeneous; I would love that. But at the end of the day, the Republican Party has never ever sided with LGBT folks in any kind of formal institutional political way that would suggest that they’re going to assist us in our struggle for equality.

That said, I think they have a real problem. One of my biggest pet peeves is when the Republican Party says they’re party of Lincoln. Well, if you’re the party of Lincoln, when it comes to LGBT folks, you’re a house divided, in the sense that you have a whole bunch of people that oppose us who basically run the house, and then a whole bunch of folks who are in your party who are living in the closets in that house. So, you’ve got your own house divided. It’s a very different one than Lincoln had.

But at the end of the day, you need to get your house in order, because you have all these toe-tapping politicians and these folks who are voting against every gay rights piece of legislation and they’re trying to get a little gay sex on the side. At the end of the day, that’s not my contradiction. That’s not my problem. It certainly has a bearing on my life and the life of my queer brothers and sisters. But at the end of the day, they’ve created this hypocrisy and it’s becoming more and more untenable and embarrassing by the minute.

When Ken Mehlman came out and all that happened…I didn’t know what to feel. On the one hand, I felt enormous empathy for this gay guy, who’s lived his entire life as a closet case, and I lived too long that way myself for different reasons. But as a person who is positioned across from him in the culture war, in the positions that he held in the Republican Party, I have nothing but disdain for what he has participated in. I’m not saying he necessarily orchestrated all those anti-gay ballot initiatives in 2004, but neither did he stand up in a vocal way – I mean, he claims to have, but none of us were in that room. He didn’t stop it.

So, I don’t have a lot of faith. I do think it’s very interesting that there are more and more Republicans who are coming out in favor of gay marriage, but they tend to be Republicans who are not, you know, deeply invested in this Tea Party-Republican uprising that we’re seeing right now. Those folks tend to be – the politicians, at least – pretty vigorously anti-gay.

Let’s talk about the Democrats for a moment. I­n October 2009, you wrote, “Indeed, when it comes to full LGBT equality, President Obama is more symbol than substance, a lot of talk and not much action.”

That was two years ago, and since that time, the President has gotten some things done. The Administration isn’t defending the Defense of Marriage Act anymore. They’ve overturned “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy barring gay Americans from serving openly in the military.

How do you see the relationship between the gay rights movement and the President today?

My views on the President are constantly in flux, and that’s probably to his advantage, when it comes to my support for him.

I still do have a certain amount of faith in him, and increasing faith in him on LGBT issues. He has ordered his Justice Department to stop defending DOMA in court. He has successfully navigated a very complicated repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and signed it into law. He signed into law a comprehensive hate crimes bill, the Byrd-Shepard Act, and has instructed his Department of Health and Human Services Secretary to order that gay and lesbian couples can have full visitation rights and medical access. He convened the first White House conference on bullying, and has certainly empowered his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who has made anti-bullying an important part of the Administration’s education agenda.

I think the President has now—three years into his presidency—shown himself to be someone who will spend political capital on our issue. He has achieved more, in terms of legislation, in terms of LGBT rights, than any other president in the history of the United States. And that’s just a fact.

He has not come out in favor of gay marriage. I have very strong suspicions that should he be reelected, that would be one of the first things we’d see – he will out himself, as it were, for gay marriage. There’s very little question in my mind that that will happen eventually, and I think that that moment will be more consistent with what he really truly believes and has believed for a long time – but right now, he can’t be true to that belief because he is President of the United States and we live in a country at a particular historical moment that’s not ready for that.

The “My views are still evolving” line. 

But they’re not. His political courage is evolving. His views are fairly clear, from my perspective, dating back some time. He’s not opposed to gay marriage; he’s on record saying that. He’s never told me that individually to my face, of course, but for a whole variety of reasons, there’s no doubt in my mind where he stands in his heart.

In one of your more recent essays, you wrote, “I wish the LGBT community would rethink its relationship with the President.” On one hand, you want him to be a stronger ally for the community and draw firm lines in the sand around certain types of discrimination. At the same time, the movement has to be bigger than him and push him to move?

Yeah, it’s got to. And one of the reasons I wrote that piece was because I wanted to be one of those people pushing him. But I also think we have to acknowledge what he’s done. I don’t think it makes any sense for us, in terms of building political will, to throw him out with the bathwater. At the end of the day, he has gotten more done as president, signed more pieces of legislation, and given more orders on our behalf than any president in American history. Part of that’s an accident of timing. We are in a moment where the arc of the moral universe for us is bending pretty quickly, or it seems to be, and he’s riding that wave, in some ways. But he’s willing to go there. He’s not resisting it. He’s doing it piece by piece. I think that he’s being smart and strategic in the way that he has gone about this, given the fierce political opposition he’s up against.

But at the end of the day, he is not our leader. He is the President. And so, we are always going to have a contentious relationship with him, as we should. The minute that we all start sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom with our same-sex partners and thinking that everything is good is the minute we lose our political edge, to say nothing of our moral integrity.

We also have to say, “Thank you, Mr. President, for being on our side, on the right side of history.” But we shouldn’t be bowing to him, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” What we should be saying is: “Good, you did what was right, Mr. President. Thanks. Next slide.”

There is a preoccupation with Obama which comes from a number of places. One is that he is President right now in this historic moment. He is also the first African-American President, so I think that some people feel like he probably “gets it” more than other leaders do, because he grew up being discriminated against. And he’s spoken powerfully about that in the “It Gets Better” video he recorded. He said, “I know what it means to be an outsider.” And he does. And because of that, because of his own experience growing up as a bi-racial kid with a funny name and big ears, the things he talked about all the time on the campaign trail, I think there’s a widely held sense that he probably has a somewhat deeper reservoir of empathy for other kinds of people that have been discriminated against. I think that’s probably true on some level.

Last year you wrote, “For our part, queer folks need to demand that our full acceptance as citizens and human beings is not negotiable; until then, elected leaders of both parties will continue to treat us as nothing more than a special-interest group to be manipulated or marginalized.” In other words, LGBT folks may have to be patient until they get what they’re entitled to, but they are entitled to these things.

Yeah. We need to operate from a position of moral strength, one that says: ‘The fact that we live as second-class citizens is your problem, not ours, and you need to fix it.” If we make progress towards that goal of realizing what already should be true, what already should be the case, then cool! Celebrate that! But all the while, let’s understand that we should already be there, though we’re not. So, I’m not going to kiss anybody’s ass because we’re getting closer to where we should already be.


And the President gets cranky about the Left critiquing him or the gay rights folks yelling at him, and this and that. But he wanted to become President! Mr. President, this is what you wanted to do with your life, so suck it up. You’re the most powerful man in the world.

And he should want it.

And he should want it. He sometimes rhetorically says he does. He tells us, “Yeah, you’re going to push me, and I’m willing to be pushed. Keep pushing.” You know, every time he speaks to us, he says that. And I think, “Okay, fine, we will. Don’t worry about that.” But I think it’s really important for us to not get so caught up in the political game that we end up bargaining away our humanity by piecemealing everything. At the end of the day, you know, I’m going to fight for marriage equality. But I’m already married. The fact that they don’t recognize that at the federal level is not my problem.


It’s really not my problem. I mean, practically speaking, it is my problem. Of course it is. In a real, experiential way, of course it’s my problem. I am a second-class citizen, but not because I think of myself—or any of us—this way. That reality has been created by someone else, by a system that continues to discriminate against us. But I think that that’s where our power comes; the moral power comes in the political struggle for people who can see the big picture. You know, James Baldwin talked about this all the time. He talked about the fact that you need to figure out how to love the white man, even though you sometimes hate him.

At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to force others into recognition…they aren’t going to realize this on their own.

And you’ll be destroyed if you don’t.

And we’ll be destroyed if we don’t.