(Photo: Americablog’s Joe Sudbay took this impressionist photo of me in the White House Press Briefing Room, 7/1/2010.)

What the heck was I doing at the White House?

This week I received an invitation to the White House earlier this week from the Office of Media Affairs to cover a LGBT policy briefing. What was different from the various background and off-the-record events that happen all the time was that this would be an on-the-record, face-to-face meeting with an administration official. I felt this was important to attend, for the sake of you, the readers, to represent the grassroots perspective that progress is just not where it should be.

Today’s meeting was with Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes. To back up a bit, LGBT reporters have been on the equivalent of a resource blackout with the administration to date, with no high-level policy official focused on ensuring that the wider LGBT community is informed on administration plans or strategy. And this President has not participated in a sit-down interview with LGBT media at all since occupying the White House. And it shows – we’ve seen mixed messages, dodges on questions (see Robert Gibbs), and onerous surprises like the language of the DOMA brief that came as a slap in the face to the community.

I can’t speak for anyone else who attended, but my expectations weren’t very high (though for me, forking over $650 out of the Blend’s budget for a one-day roundtrip ticket without a guarantee of anything worth reporting was a gamble). You can decide whether it was money well spent.

I do thank the White House for making Melody Barnes’s time available to LGBT media — if only the administration had reached out earlier (something I made clear in the meeting — it would have saved the WH a lot of grief if it spoke with parties other than Gay, Inc over the last year and a half). Now it can choose whether it’s worthwhile to build a broader communication bridge.

Who attended

Seventeen Sixteen people were invited; nine were able to make it: Lou Chibbaro, The Washington Blade; Jen Colletta, Philadelphia Gay News; Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate; Chris Geidner, Metro Weekly; Paul Schindler, Gay City News; Jillian Weiss, The Bilerico Project; Joe Sudbay; Americablog; Lisa Keen from Keen News Service and your blogmistress.

As you can see, there’s not a good representation from around the country (though we were told the net was cast wide), but problem here is two-fold — the invitation came with short notice (just a few days), and reporters had to have the time and resources to get there. As you see, I am the odd ball out there, far away, not from a major metro area, and not working for a media outlet. The only reason I was able to go was 1) I got clearance from my director, and 2) the Blend ad account had enough in it for the ticket. None of that is the fault of the White House, mind you, but you see how hard it is as a non-Beltway independent citizen journalist to cover our issues successfully. There’s no infrastructure for the WH to work with to ensure your voice is at the table.

But enough on that, I just wanted to put that out there.

Where it was held and who represented the administration in the briefing

Most of us arrived at the White House and assembled in the Press Briefing Room (where you can often see Kerry Eleveld, right, with Joe Sudbay, attempting to extract a straight answer out of Robert Gibbs).

The briefing we attended was to be held in the Roosevelt Room, but we were taken to the Old Executive Office Building’s Secretary of War Suite, a smallish dark room with ornate antique furniture. It was pretty warm in there, and as we waited for Melody Barnes, a gentleman by the name of Ian Bassin, deputy associate counsel in the Office of Counsel to the President, came in and introduced himself. He handles civil rights and telecom issues; it wasn’t clear why he was there. He sat down and chatted with some of the member of the press, but otherwise said nothing during the session.

Also on hand, sitting off on the side the room, was Brian Bond, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement (a.k.a. the LGBT liaison). He did not say anything during the briefing, even though his name came up during the course of one of Barnes’s answers.

It should be made clear that Ms. Barnes is not a member of the political team, she is policy, and so any questions about strategy and the elections was off the table. It’s kind of unfortunate that, with the mid-terms coming up, that they were not able to scheduled a political meeting on the same day. Perhaps this will be in the offing down the line, since surely this administration has to be concerned about enthusiasm about opening the GayTM and LGBTs getting out to vote in key elections.

Summary of the meeting

Short version: Nothing new was learned, despite numerous attempts to get substantive answers about administration policy; move along to the next PHB post.

Long version: Keep reading if you want color commentary and a general review on the dodge and parry.

Assistant to the President Barnes started off, as expected, summarizing a list of administration accomplishments, noting of course, other than signing hate crimes legislation, all have been accomplished through executive action only (Cinderella Crumbs), such as hospital visitation, Family Medical Leave Act extension, HUD’s announcement on LGBT discrimination policy, changes in addressing transgender passport application measures, and the lifting of the HIV ban. She underscored that the President is trying to accomplish as much as possibly in this manner, which does not require Congressional approval.

This meeting was only an hour, so we all got to ask only one question, and after that, a few of us asked a second.

What was asked/answered

Rather than do a complete review, I’ll cover a few, and link up to Joe Sudbay’s post, since he did a lot of transcribing of verbatim quotes. Here’s a snippet:

Kerry Eleveld asked if the President was going to move beyond his support for “separate, but equal” fixes. So, again, The President has consistently called for repeal of DOMA. Okay. He’s called for it — consistently. And, he thinks it is “discriminatory.” (Unclear who he’s calling consistently, but whatever.) When Kerry asked if Obama still supported civil unions, which she pointed out was still a “separate, but equal” institution adding “I’m wondering if at any point he’s ever going to embrace full equality rather than these smaller steps.” Barnes responded, I understand what you’re saying, but that’s the course that he has set forth.” That course doesn’t include full equality.

I asked if the White House would oppose any killer amendments that are offered on the DADT repeal legislation when it hits the Senate floor:


What I can tell you is that when we see the amendments that are filed that we will continue to do what we did through the process in the House, which is work to make sure that this moves forward. Obviously, if there is an effort to undermine repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the President wouldn’t be supportive of that. At the same time, I can’t sit here and walk through hypotheticals for amendments that I haven’t seen and haven’t been filed.

Well, a “killer” amendment will be filed and we’ll need more than the President not being supportive. We need him to actively oppose it — and get on the phone to Senators about it.

I can say that most of the answers were perfunctory statements about the President’s current positions  – he wants DADT repealed, he wants an inclusive ENDA, DOMA should go. He still clings to civil unions, and when asked whether the President believes that DOMA or DADT is unconstitutional Barnes deferred to legal counsel. I take that, since he’s a constitutional scholar that he has an opinion on the matter, but she wasn’t going there.

One memorable question was when Lou Chibbaro asked why the President’s strategy has been to work on one LGBT issue at a time, hate crimes, DADT, etc.

We were told by Barnes that the ball is in Congress’s court to get these done and that the White House doesn’t determine when matters are considered on the Hill or go to the floor for a vote. [Familiar passing the buck, lack of ability to multitask, impotence of the President. - ed.]

She went on to describe the President’s support of DADT repeal, and an inclusive ENDA, and that members of the administration had testified on the Hill on the bill’s behalf. As a follow up, Chibbaro asked whether the President would use his own influence and speak out strongly and publicly about moving ENDA.

Barnes’s answer here was curious — she said he has continued to speak out about his support on ENDA to all sorts of audiences. I don’t recall him mentioning ENDA in many speeches this year, and certainly not in front of non-LGBT audiences. I’ve got to go use TEH GOOGLE and check that out.

An answer that raised eyebrows at the table was why there wasn’t a single, high-level policy point person who has LGBT issues as a responsibility. Barnes said that she, Rahm Emanuel, Jim Messina, Valerie Jarrett care deeply about our issues (!) and that Emanuel was the one who pushed for hospital visitation. Well, I can say that since Obama’s been in office, none of these people, or even Brian Bond, has had any roundtable discussions with LGBT media or citizen journalists to ensure your questions got in the queue.

It begs the question — who do they talk to outside of their bubble to get their finger on the pulse of the community? I asked whether she was aware of the gulf in understanding and communication and outright goals of HRC versus the grass roots. She didn’t seem to understand the question, then referred to Brian Bond and Tina Tchen (Brian’s boss, the Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement) as the tip of the spear in terms of communications with the community.

It’s unclear if there will be future meetings of this kind, or whether this was a dog and pony show to check off a box that LGBT media and the netroots have been engaged. As every move in a White House is political, not altruistic, we have to assume that both could be true.

Also read takes on the meeting by:

* Jillian Weiss

* Joe Sudbay

* Chris Geidner

* Kerry Eleveld

* Lisa Keen

* Lou Chibbaro

UPDATE: My parting gift – not my equal rights, of course, that will have to wait. For now it’s…presidential M&Ms:

I am taking it to work to show to curious colleagues. Now I have to figure out how to preserve the box once the candy is gone. :)