Valerie Jarrett, a staunch ally, speaks candidly about the hurdles LGBTQ people face after Obama. (Photo the White House flicker page)
Talking with Valerie Jarrett, the former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, is surreal. On this day, Tuesday, Sept. 19, a day filled with such powerful natural and political thunderclaps, the news is deafening: a massive 7.1 earthquake shakes Mexico City; Maria, the third massive hurricane in a row to hit the Caribbean, becomes as Category 5; Senate Republicans scramble to repeal the Affordable Care Act; Special Prosecutor Bob Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s cyber warfare and interference in the 2016 elections intensifies; and President Donald Trump lectures the UN about national sovereignty, then threatens to “totally destroy North Korea,” bringing the US closer to nuclear war than since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
The pall of hatred cast over America during Trump’s dark Inauguration speech has descended in seven months to become like the thick, choking smog of China. It’s hard to see each other through the billowing exhaust of white supremacy. Everyone’s afraid as LGBT rights and Black lives and immigrant promises are blocked from the sun with a shrug from the White House.
Valerie Jarrett is a breath of fresh air, a patch of blue. In advance of her appearance at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s 48th Anniversary Vanguard Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Saturday, Sept. 23, Jarrett speaks candidly about the election consequences and keeping an eye on the prize of justice and equality for all.
“Obviously, I disagree with the dismantling of many of the important measures that President Obama put in place to create an even playing field and advocate for civil rights for Americans,” Jarrett says in a phone interview. “But elections have consequences. I don’t think we should be surprised about the steps the administration is taking. That’s why President Obama campaigned so hard for Sec. Clinton. And he expressed quite clearly during the campaign what was at stake here.
“But we are where we are,” says the longtime advocate for civil rights and equality. “I try to be a force for good. I try to highlight the positive steps we can take to create a fair and more just country. And I also try to take the long view and know that our democracy is messy– but you can’t give up. You have to just keep fighting.”
But many LGBT people, especially millennials, are still in shock: how can fundamental rights be revoked?
“Well, this is the challenge. You can never take equal rights for granted. You have to constantly reinforce their importance. And we can never afford to become complacent. It is a real blow, particularly to young people who grew up with President Obama fighting on their behalf,” Jarrett says. “But part of the lesson here is that we all have a responsibility, a collective and an individual responsibility, to fight for what is just and what is right.”
Jarrett say she is “heartened” to see so many people running for office, showing up for city council meetings, becoming active in their communities.
“That’s the bright light for us all to see—people who are willing to turn their outrage and their frustration and their anger into constructive action to fight for justice,” she says. “I’m just heartened to see so many young people who are rolling up their sleeves and engaging in their local communities. They are constructive forces for good. We can’t allow our frustration or our discouragement to paralyze us. It should motivate us to take action.”
It is imperative to take the long view. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice—if we all push in the same direction. I think reminding everyone of that responsibility of citizenship means that you have to be engaged,” she says, noting that 43 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2016. “It’s very hard. I’m not trying to sugar coat how painful and hard it is—not just the people whose lives are directly affected, but for those of us who believe in a country where our fundamental value is based in civil rights for all.”
This belief is at the root of her deep 26-year friendship with Barack and Michelle Obama, whom she first met when they were just out of law school and she tried to recruit then-Michelle Robinson to join her working for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
“Part of why the three of us clicked so long ago was because we shared this passion for social justice,” she says. “We felt a responsibility to give back and to try to fight for people who needed advocates—to have this sense that we are all in this together and so I can’t just fight for my civil rights, I have to fight for your civil rights, too.”
Jarrett, who was very involved in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and lifting the ban against transgender military service, says she “can’t imagine” why the Trump administration is seeking to re-impose the trans ban.
“I’m not in a position to guess their motivation,” she says. “I just believe that anyone who is prepared to serve and sacrifice for our country should be given permission to do so. And should be supported in doing so. We owe our men and women in the military an enormous debt of gratitude for their service and their sacrifice. Why deny somebody the opportunity to do that?”
Jarrett points to Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s powerful statement reacting to the trans ban. Duckworth, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and helicopter pilot, lost both her legs in 2004 in Iraq.
“When I was bleeding to death in my Black Hawk helicopter after I was shot down, I didn’t care if the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender, black, white or brown. All that mattered was they didn’t leave me behind,” Duckworth said.
“There are already transgender people serving our country admirably, making great sacrifices for our country. Why would you try to change that? It’s not true to our core values,” says Jarrett.
The Obama administration took LGBT rights seriously. “From Day One, President Obama directed us to fight for equality everywhere and to look at all of the different ways in which there was inequality and level the playing field,” Jarrett says. “And so that was our mission. And it was important to him to be an advocate for everyone.
But it was hard to change policy. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal effort “was herculean,” she says. But now “you don’t hear of any issues. And that is because it was embraced by the Defense Department” so “it wouldn’t be a pyrrhic victory. We wanted to ensure that our LGBTQ brothers and sisters would actually be able to thrive in the military.”
Jarrett has stories, too. “I went to the first LGBT annual celebration that they had during Gay Pride Month at the Defense Department,” she says. “I was moved to tears to see people in uniform who had had to sneak into the White House to see me during the process of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for fear of being thrown out of the military. And then, there they were in their uniforms proudly celebrating with the Sec. of Defense. It felt like a thunderbolt because one year they weren’t allowed to be in uniform and the next year, they were.”
That thunderbolt came after years of sustained hard work, fighting against those entrenched in the status quo. “They’re threatened by change—and change is never easy. It always takes longer than it should, it’s more painful than it should be, but ultimately, that arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice.”
But Jarrett is no Pollyanna. “I am optimistic,” she says. “But I know people are scared and feeling very vulnerable and under attack. All Americans have a responsibility to make it clear that the LGBT community doesn’t stand alone. We all stand with the entire community. We all have to lock arms together and look out for one another.
“Believe me, I know this is hard,” Jarrett continues. “And it is shocking, particularly to young people who I think have been perhaps lulled into a false sense of security. But our democracy is worth fight for and it’s something every citizen can do. It’s within their power to do it. So let’s do it.
“Every voice matters. Every person, everyone in this country can be that force for good,” says Valerie Jarrett. “It is no time to feel paralyzed and or to feel hopeless because we can all be a part of that positive force for change.”
For more information on the LA LGBT Center’s Vanguard Awards, go to: https://lalgbtcenter.org/