When American Idol creator, Simon Fuller, chose the song for finalist Adam Lambert to sing on the show’s last night of competition, there was a moment of real trepidation after it was announced that Fuller had selected A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke’s heart-shattering ballad that, after Cooke’s death in 1964, came to so thoroughly embody the pain and the hope of the civil rights era that it has forever lodged itself in the realm of the sacred.
As a consequence of its historic status combined with Cooke’s devastating delivery on that original recording, there are precious few people who have the license to sing that song without making us cringe. Bettye LaVette had the license, when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial. Jon Bon Jovi, who sang with her, despite his solid performance, did not.
So what in the world were the American Idol people thinking by handing a Hollywood-styled white boy this of all songs?
As it turned out, Simon Fuller knew exactly what he was doing. On the resolutely middle-of-the-road mega-hit music show, the gay kid with the black fingernails, the guyliner and the killer voice remade Sam Cooke’s anthem into a reminder of the basic rights that we have yet to grant the segment of our citizenry of which Lambert is a member.
In Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich asks why—if even American Idol has tip-toed into the gay rights conversation—has Barack Obama failed to speak up on, for example, the issue that has resulted in 12,500 US service people being bounced out of our armed services for their sexual orientation?
Two-hundred and fifteen have been fired since Obama was sworn in alone, the most recent casualty of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell being experienced Arabic translator, Lt. Dan Choi.
Here are some relevant clips from Rich’s column:
Despite Barack Obama’s pledges as a candidate and president, there is no discernible movement on repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or the Defense of Marriage Act. Both seem more cruelly discriminatory by the day.
When yet another Arabic translator was thrown out of the Army this month for being gay, Jon Stewart nailed the self-destructive Catch-22 of “don’t ask”: We allow interrogators to waterboard detainees and then banish a soldier who can tell us what that detainee is saying. The equally egregious Defense of Marriage Act, a k a DOMA, punishes same-sex spouses by voiding their federal marital rights even in states that have legalized gay marriage. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the widower of America’s first openly gay congressman, Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, must mount a long-shot court battle to try to collect the survivor benefits from his federal pension and health insurance plans. (Studds died in 2006.) Nothing short of Congressional repeal of DOMA is likely to rectify that injustice.
Most Congressional Republicans will still vote against gay civil rights. Some may take the politically risky path of demonizing same-sex marriage during the coming debate over the new Supreme Court nominee. Old prejudices and defense mechanisms die hard, after all: there are still many gay men in the party’s hierarchy hiding in fear from what remains of the old religious-right base. In “Outrage,” a new documentary addressing precisely this point, Kirk Fordham, who had been chief of staff to Mark Foley, the former Republican congressman, says, “If they tried to fire gay staff like they do booting people out of the military, the legislative process would screech to a halt.” A closet divided against itself cannot stand.
But when Congressional Republicans try to block gay civil rights â€” last week one cadre introduced a bill to void the recognition of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia â€” they just don’t have the votes to get their way. The Democrats do have the votes to advance the gay civil rights legislation Obama has promised to sign. And they have a serious responsibility to do so. Let’s not forget that “don’t ask” and DOMA both happened on Bill Clinton’s watch and with his approval. Indeed, in the 2008 campaign, Obama’s promise to repeal DOMA outright was a position meant to outflank Hillary Clinton, who favored only a partial revision.
So what’s stopping the Democrats from rectifying that legacy now?
Dr. King addressed such dawdling in 1963. “For years now I have heard the word â€˜Wait,’ ” King wrote. “It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This â€˜Wait’ has almost always meant â€˜Never.’ ”
The gay civil rights movement has fewer obstacles in its path than did Dr. King’s Herculean mission to overthrow the singular legacy of slavery. That makes it all the more shameful that it has fewer courageous allies in Washington than King did. If “American Idol” can sing out for change on Fox in prime time, it ill becomes Obama, of all presidents, to remain mute in the White House.
When I was hiking in the hills with my best friend, Janet, yesterday, we discussed the issue; she was bothered by all that the President had not said, while I took the position of defending Obama’s inaction. “You have to pick your battles. So much is at stake on every front right now,” I said. Blah-blah-blah.
Of course that’s true. A leader facing the challenges of this young president cannot fight everywhere at once. Yet on the issue of gay rights, both Janet and Frank Rich called it correctly: The excuses are wearing thin. Yes, Mr. President. Pick your battles. But this needs to be one of the battles chosen—sooner rather than later.
Monday, as we honor the military’s men and women who have fallen in our name, and our brave sons and daughters who still serve, it is my hope that next year at this time, we can honestly and openly honor all of them.
Cartoon by Chan Lowe, of the Sun-Sentinel in Southern Florida