Viewpoint: View From the West Wing

By Michelle E. Brown

Whether it was in a civics/history class or on "Schoolhouse Rock" when the concept of our government was first introduced to you, there's nothing like a visit to Washington, D.C., to get you really thinking about where we have been and where we can go as a nation.

Washington, D.C., the seat of our government, encapsulates where and how it all supposedly happens. The executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government are right there for all to see and the view is impressive.

The moment you see the National Mall from your window seat as you come into Reagan National Airport, pose for photos on the steps of the Supreme Court building, tour the Capitol building or visit the White House, you are transformed from being just John Q. Public and find yourself letting your inner patriot out of the closet.

No matter how often you might "rail against the man" back home, there is that moment when you feel like Alice falling through the proverbial looking glass. Where, as a young lobbyist said, going through less security than at their local high school, you could talk to your congressmen and women about legislation that impacts millions of lives.

It is impressive. The historic edifices, marble hallways, brushes with the "who's who" of American politics and the ultimate "Cinderella" moment: attending VIP receptions. All can be pretty heady stuff, but you don't have to look too far to be reminded of the reality waiting on the other side of the looking glass.

Turn your back on the gleaming white structures that hold the seat of our government and you will see the real Washington, D.C. It's a city that reflects the state of America more accurately than the elected officials supposedly representing us.

Approximately 17 percent of the population lives below poverty. Unemployment is over 9 percent. It has one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS in the country. And, in a city whose daytime residents in the Senate and House have some of the best health care in the nation, the residents left behind after the close of business are often uninsured or underinsured.

It is a city of contradictions at the heart of a country of contradictions, and the LGBT community is right there in the mix.

In the city that recognizes and embraces the LGBT community and has become the sixth place in the United States where gay marriages are legal, the LGBT community comes to fight the Defense of Marriage Act - the federal act defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman for purposes of all federal laws, thus denying recognition of our unions.

In the city where the Metropolitan Police Department's Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit is staffed by openly gay, lesbian and transgender members of the department and allies dedicated to serving the Washington metropolitan area, we come to demand the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" so that dedicated openly gay LGBT armed forces members can serve our nation proudly and without fear.

Now, we have a president in office who has repeatedly said he is committed to LGBT equality. He was first U.S. chief executive to appoint openly LGBT candidates to Senate-confirmed positions in the first 100 days of an administration. And, he has promised to pursue LGBT related initiatives both domestically and internationally.

In 2009 he declared June as Pride Month for the first time since the Clinton administration. Last year, as well as this year, he invited many LGBT leaders at both the national and local level to attend a reception in celebration of Pride Month at the White House. Detroit was represented this year by Affirmations' Leslie Thompson, Equality Michigan's Alicia Skillman and Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh.

Nice, exciting, even cool - yes. But in this city, country and time of great contradiction - what does it all really mean?

I have attended my fair share of Washington, D.C., receptions and lobby visits, met with and exchanged numbers with legislators and their aides, even shook the president's hand - but each time when I have stepped back through the looking glass to my world, I've wondered was it just all window dressing, or really movement for change.

This June I went to Washington, D.C., as one of the eight members of the National Black Justice Coalition Board of Directors invited to a top-level briefing in the West Wing on issues not just in the LGBT community but in the African-American community as well.

Did I get all the answers? Did I see the light at the end of the tunnel? No, but the view from the West Wing was far better than the view I had before. I am still a realist. I have not been to the mountain top - just the West Wing. We still have some difficult days ahead of us and miles to go before the dawn of full equality.

In the coming weeks I hope to share with you my insights, impressions and information gained in this view in hopes it will move us beyond window dressing to agents of change.

Michelle E. Brown is a metro Detroit-based writer and activist. She lives with her partner in Southfield. You can find her at http://www.michelleelizabethbrown.com.
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