Photo of Valerie Jarrett courtesy America.Gov

I don’t think Valerie Jarrett is a bad person for using the words “lifestyle choice” when speaking about the recent rash of gay teen suicides. The more important question always goes to intent — did Jarrett mean what Tony Perkins means when he uses those words? Did she mean to imply that the teens were responsible for their own predicament because they chose to be godless hedonists? I just don’t believe she did.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to the choices people make about language, and I don’t see any reason to think that Jarrett did anything more than use words that are atavistic and reflect cultural isolation from the LGBT movement. She put herself out there to comfort the parents of those teens and spoke out against the bullying that led to their deaths. That counts for a lot more.

The much greater problem is that the comments do reveal Jarrett to be unfamiliar with the discourse in the LGBT community for the past 40 years. Which doesn’t make her a leper either — it’s hard to be up on the crosscurrents of every community all the time. But Jarrett is ultimately in charge of LGTB relations at the White House. Brian Bond, the LGBT liaison and Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, reports directly to her.

Josh Gerstein writes today that Rahm Emanuel was the one in the White House who “sought to avoid a showdown with the military over the issue” of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As Obama was making critical decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, he “didn’t want the process derailed by the culturally freighted gays-in-the-military fight.”

So when White House senior staff were discussing how to proceed on DADT, who was the one tasked with representing the concerns of the LGTB community? Who answered Rahm on their behalf? Ultimately in the White House food chain, that was Jarrett.

And once again, this brings us back to the problem of the veal pen. The White House chooses “friendly” groups who won’t force them into uncomfortable positions to represent the concerns of various constituencies. The Center for Biological Diversity isn’t invited to the Tuesday Common Purpose meetings, the Sierra Club is. If choice groups want to express their concerns to the White House, they have to go through NARAL’s Nancy Keenan. And when the White House wants to interact with LGBT groups, they communicate with (and through) the HRC.

Which is why it’s extremely troubling that the HRC goes after Republican Ken Buck for his comments on “lifestyle choice,” but doesn’t speak up when Jarrett does the same. I agree that Buck uses the words with the same intent as Tony Perkins — to demean gay people and justify his support for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  It’s much, much worse than anything Jarrett did. But Ken Buck isn’t in charge of anything.

Before Jarrett appeared at the HRC dinner last week, Alex Nicholson of Servicemembers United called on her to meet with gay and lesbian veterans to talk about the administration’s position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Rather than help facilitate what in retrospect could have been a very helpful personal encounter for Jarrett, Fred Sainz of the HRC lashed out, saying “these latest hijinks by Nicholson are part of a troubling pattern of irrational, unprofessional, and unproductive behavior.”

Anthony Woods was discharged from the Army under DADT. When he tried to buy a $5000 ticket to the Alonzo Mourning fundraiser attended by President Obama so he could speak to him directly, the same way Wall Street Bankers do, he was turned down.  The message of those directly affected by DADT isn’t getting through.

Instead, the HRC covers Obama’s left flank. They are the principal communicators with the White House, and they’re not communicating.  They use their clout and resources to marginalize LGTB activists who criticize the White House, branding them as “extreme” and “irrational” within the community.  They clearly see their roles as Democratic operatives who insulate the White House from the heat being applied at the grassroots level, and use LGBT issues to advance the Democratic Party’s agenda.

In the wake of the success of the Log Cabin Republicans vs. United States suit, as well as Ted Olson’s advocacy on Proposition 8, the LGBT community is finding what we discovered on Audit the Fed: working across party lines can be one of the most effective ways to advance certain issues. This week, NYU Law School will host a forum entitled “The Log Cabin Republican Victory Against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: Are Conservatives the Most Effective LGBT Advocates?” It’s undeniable that the right/left alliance has been extremely important in the fight for LGBT rights. By using these moments as little more than an opportunity for demagoguery and self-promotion, the HRC is only making matters worse.

The HRC was the one organization in a position to know that Jarrett simply is not aware of what’s going on in the LGBT community. Moreover, they are the ones who had the opportunity to communicate with her directly and give her the information she needs to be an effective messenger when critical decisions are being made in the White House. The fact that Jarret wasn’t aware of how members of the LGBT community would hear her comments reflects how poorly served both the White House and the LGBT community are by having the HRC act as principal intercessors.

No wonder the White House is so tone deaf to how their actions are being perceived on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Jarrett has had oversight of LGBT issues within the White House for two years. Her lack of awareness of the dynamics within the LGBT community is something the HRC bears direct responsibility for. If the HRC, as chosen messengers, see themselves as Democratic Party advocates within the LGBT community rather than LGBT advocates to the administration, what recourse do activists have to get the President’s attention, other than chain themselves to the White House and heckle him at public events?