Sign of the Times


Don't Tell Me to Wait

By: Kerry Eleveid

Winning a multitude of awards, recognition, and fame within the LGBT journalism world, Kerry Eleveld has broken boundaries and completed feats that have given the gay community a step toward equality. She earned a Master’s degree in journalism from Berkeley.

The Fight for Basic Human Rights

By: Eric Chung

President Obama will indeed go down in history as the president who helped launch a new era of equality in America, but it was the LGBT activists themselves who gave that legacy life.”1 Kerry Eleveld’s Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency explores the journey of Obama’s relationship with the LGBT community, starting with straight disapproval to eventual acceptance. Eleveld highlights the frequently overlooked presence of the LGBT community in politics while pulling in her journalism expertise and first person experiences interviewing former-President Barack Obama. Stringing together historical events with her own commentary, this book truly reveals an in depth look at how the LGBT community affected Obama’s presidency and vice versa.

In the first quarter of Don’t Tell Me To Wait, Eleveld highlights Obama’s disapproval of gay marriage to set up an atmosphere for change. On his tour across America, Obama allowed Donnie McClurkin, an individual who called homsexuality “a curse,” to be his opening act, thus proving “Obama surely never indicated any misgiving about the fact that McClurkin had ultimately delivered what so many LGBT activists feared.”2 After holding an interview with The Advocate, a well known LGBT news outlet, Obama recognized the power of the LGBT community in politics: “Yandura knew how much pain he could inflict on the party with this kings of move; he had raised money for the Democrats during two separate presidential elections and knew what a cash cow gay donors had become for the party.”3 After Obama’s blatant disregard towards LGBT concerns, his democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton “developed a whole new relationship with LGBT issues. They were her best friend.”4 Clinton, being a wise politician, quickly gained the support of confused LGBT voters, confused in the sense that they wanted to believe in Obama to bring change, but he did not deliver. This competition and lack of LGBT support would be a major downfall for Obama’s campaign for president of the United States.

In the second quarter of Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency, Eleveld shows how Obama began to regain LGBT trust. While the Obama administration still stalled on their stance on LGBT legislation, “throughout the country, states and courts were beginning to legally recognize same-sex couples, regardless of what the president had to say on the matter.”5 Eleveld begins to introduce her thesis: that LGBT rights did not stem from Obama’s presidency but from the activists and the people who pushed Obama into that direction. Obama was in a dilemma. On one side “he wanted to show his support for a very vocal and financially prolific swath of his base, but he was wary of forcing the issue nationwide.”6 Although the solution is never specifically mentioned, Obama pushed through without taking one strict side. This would be an issue for Obama up until he was elected president, for after his election he could express his true morals and beliefs without fear of backlash from the government.

The third quarter of Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency consists of Eleveld’s continued discussion on how Obama began to gain the LGBT community’s trust. One of the most critical moments in Obama’s presidency, in regards to the queer community, was the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The author recalls the moment “Obama stopped abruptly, looked straight at his detractor, then returned, “We are going to do that!”7 This moment, disposing of Bill Clinton’s anti-homosexual military policy, was when the gay community realized that Obama was on their side. Earlier he may have disagreed with the homosexual agenda; however, like the author early on predicted, “Once Obama was in office, his advocacy on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans would trump his anti-gay marriage rhetoric.”8 Eleveld and the LGBT community put their trust in Obama, ignoring his past comments on gay marriage, and once he got into office they believed he would become an ally.

In the final quarter of Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency, the audience can see Obama’s full transition into a supporter for LGBT rights as Eleveld continues to paint this portrait of a changed man. His full-fledged support often was met with disapproval from the public: “Obama did not like the allegation that he and his staff were deferring the issue. Indeed, the idea infuriated the man whose election had been hailed as a watershed moment for integration and inclusion.”9 Obama’s reelection was filled with LGBT support since now “endorsing same-sex marriage was also now in alignment with the views of about two-thirds of Democrats.”10 However, even to this point, Eleveld revealed a flaw within Obama’s campaign. Although surrounded by LGBT support, he had a “hesitation to ban gay bias by government contractors, like his continued failure to actually endorse the freedom to marry.”11 This re emphasizes that Obama was not the LGBT forerunner many media outlets made him out to be. Rather he simply followed what would get him the votes or support while keeping it at a minimum effort in helping the LGBT community.

Eleveld’s overarching thesis is clear: “Obama is not leading the public, he’s following.”12 Throughout his presidency Obama was never outspoken about LGBT rights, rather he spoke when he had to and he gave only what he had to. It’s true, repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” was a major success, but was that because of Obama? Eleveld argued throughout her book that LGBT rights never came from the government or president. The true LGBT movement was rooted where the people were, where the common folk fought for recognition and change in legislation. Eleveld also mentions the haze between a separation of church and state. This has been a struggle since the founding of America, and it has been repeatedly stated throughout history that there shall be a clear separation between church and state. Eleveld claims that if this is the case, why is gay rights still an issue? Why can’t politicians, and Obama, see past their religious values and see that the gay community are just people?

Kerry Eleveld has been a journalist for over 20 years and earned her Master’s degree in journalism from the University of California-Berkeley in 2003. Her work has appeared on the Salon, the Atlantic, The Daily Beast, the Washington Post, and Politico and she has offered her expertise to CNN, The New York Times, and the Associated Press. Working with The Advocate, a prominent LGBT news outlet, Eleveld interviewed former-President Obama before and after his first election. She retells her detailed experiences claiming that her first interview with him “got good pickup in mainstream outlets like the New York Times and Politico…the fact that Obama had taken the time to speak with a gay outlet.”13 Her father, who passed away in 2017, was a former journalist and political figure which explains Kerry’s interests in political journalism. Her father was a clear inspiration for Kerry being that Don’t Tell Me To Wait was dedicated to him. An activist himself, Kerry’s passion and fighting spirit can be largely credited to her father.

The 2000’s was the time for change. In almost all aspects, technological advances were booming, the media began to gain a major presence, and the LGBT community began to see more changes in their favor. Regardless of political viewpoints, socially Americans respected the queer community with higher regard and this entitled a government response. After a consistent fight from activists, “Within the federal government, workplace protections already existed by 2012 for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees.”14 It was a move towards the right direction. Although within the government there is a prominent Republican-anti-gay presence, this was a time for change and activists stood by Obama to bring that change. In the 2012 Democratic convention the Democratic platform announced that “[they] support the right of all families to have equal respect, responsibilities, and protections under the law. [They] support marriage equality and support the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples.”15 This was momentous. The Democratic party of the United States of America announced their full fledged support for gay marriage. Without society being the drive for this new liberalism, the government would have never reacted with greater respect for the LGBT community.

The New York Times wholeheartedly agrees with Eleveld’s thesis: “Eleveld is surely right that when Obama embraced same-sex marriage in May 2012, he was following, not leading.”16 Emphasizing the former president’s over-hyped stature in regards to LGBT rights, Bazelon, the author of this book review, again agrees that it was the activists and the country spurred this change, not Obama. The critical review also argues that Obama moved much slower than he could have delaying the process of LGBT rights for Americans. Overall this critical review of Don’t Tell Me To Wait expresses praise and agreeance of Eleveld’s message. Another critical review, from Kirkus, highlights another key point: “Throughout the book, the author explores the president’s principles versus political expediency.”17 Obama throughout his campaign always weighed on one hand his own beliefs/morals and on the other hand what would get him elected. Although seemingly selfish, it was the right choice to make because Obama’s plan to bring change for the LGBT community could never have been realized if he hadn’t been elected. Therefore, he had to get the support he needed to get into office and then he would weigh in his personal beliefs.

Stringing together first person narrative, facts or historical events, and analysis of both, Eleveld truly succeeded in translating her point, her purpose in writing about this issue that obviously meant a lot to her. Although Obama to most people may seem like a saint for LGBT rights, Eleveld glorifies not Obama but the common man, the activists that fought for their rights. She makes it a clear point to emphasize that Obama never truly committed to fight for LGBT rights, therefore she successfully, while writing a historical book, reveals her opinions on the matter of gay rights under Obama’s presidency. This book has opened my eyes to the truth of the relationship between the LGBT community and Obama’s campaign. Without the media to twist and manipulate the truth, this book allows readers to see first person accounts, solid facts and statistics, and personal experiences the author had during the time of this movement. If anything, Eleveld successfully documented these critical years of change for the LGBT community in order for future generations to learn and experience these events for themselves. However, there are flaws in her writing. Regardless of the subject matter the author is writing about, Eleveld shows a clear bias. Her past experiences in The Advocate and other LGBT news sources clearly show her stance on gay rights; however, being a historical account of what exactly happened between Obama’s presidency and the LGBT community this should have been an unbiased pieces of writing.

Being set in 2004 and beyond, Eleveld’s discussion of the connection between Obama’s presidency and the LGBT community strays far from the Cold War and fear of terrorism; however, a similar ideology still strikes true—a fear of the new and different. Obama’s initial comments on marriage were that it was “a sacred union between man and woman…you know, God’s in the mix.”18 This traditional view of marriage could have indirectly stemmed from past instances of fear, fear of different types of government and social groups. The LGBT community has always been viewed as outsiders in the melting pot of America; however, by his second term, even the traditionalist Obama stated “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that—for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that—I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”19

Digital technology greatly influenced the election of 2008 and allowed for the queer community to connect and cater to a wider audience. In this election, “candidates really began to leverage the power of the blogosphere.”20 This grassroots movement allowed for both LGBT and mainstream stories to be shared on the internet raising awareness and educating the people from a common man’s perspective. Eleveld addresses the impact of digital technology on these elections by including sources from “sites like Pam’s House Blend, run by the ever-pithy Pam Spaulding out of North Carolina…the Indiana-based blog, Bilerico Project, run by Bil Browning and Jerame Davis… news aggregators like Andy Towle’s blog Towleroad in New York, which offered the best in gay from across the web.”21 The power of the internet should not be ignored in all branches of society: the government, business, art etc. Especially in this newfound “age of technology” politicians must, if anything, learn to harness this “blogosphere” in order to further their campaign.

The LGBT members alongside former-President Obama fought the fight for equality for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identification. It was not easy, neither is it over, but Obama was the political figure LGBT members needed to legitimize their cries for change: “this was the guy [they] had been waiting for.”21 Obama, like many presidents in the past, took credit for a movement, simply because it occurred under his presidency; however, the reality that students and scholars alike should recognize is that every movement for social justice and equality that has occurred in America has started from the people. The people have changed America to being the great nation it is today and the people will continue fighting for what they believe is just. The LGBT movement is just one aspect of America’s fight towards equality, more specifically equality for minorities. Minorities, whether it be their race, religion, sexual orientation etc., have made America into what it is today and for them to strive for anything but equality is unacceptable. The fight will be long and difficult but only if people stand together and fight will future LGBT members live a life where they never feel at a disadvantage because of their sexual orientation.

[1] Eleveld, Kerry. Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency. New York: Basic Books, 2015. Xvi.
[2] Eleveld, Kerry. 20.
[3] Eleveld, Kerry. 44.
[4] Eleveld, Kerry. 15.
[5] Eleveld, Kerry. 65.
[6] Eleveld, Kerry. 75.
[7] Eleveld, Kerry. 137.
[8] Eleveld, Kerry. 2.
[9] Eleveld, Kerry. 141.
[10] Eleveld, Kerry. 243.
[11] Eleveld, Kerry. 251.
[12] Eleveld, Kerry. 233.
[13] Eleveld, Kerry. 13.
[14] Eleveld, Kerry. 246.
[15] Eleveld, Kerry. 260.
[16] Bazelon, Emily. “’Don’t Tell Me to Wait,’ by Kerry Eleveld.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 May 2017.
[17] Eleveld, Kerry. “DON’T TELL ME TO WAIT by Kerry Eleveld.” Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus, 06 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 May 2017.
[18] Eleveld, Kerry. 2.
[19] Eleveld, Kerry. 257.
[20] Eleveld, Kerry. 6.
[21] Eleveld, Kerry. 262.