In an unprecedented White House gathering of gay and lesbian leaders and activists on Monday, President Obama strongly affirmed his commitment to enacting equality legislation and overturning discriminatory laws and policies.
Monday’s event, held in the East Room of the White House, was the first time a U.S. president hosted a White House celebration of Gay Pride Month. It marked the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising that launched the gay rights movement.
“As a gay kid growing up in rural Missouri — I never thought I would end up helping to organize an LGBT Pride event in the White House,” Brian Bond, veteran political organizer and now deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, wrote on the White House blog.
The event, Bond said, aimed to provide the world with “a snapshot of the real heroes across the country that do the day-to-day work fighting for equality.” The gathering included gay and lesbian elected officials like Alabama state Rep. Patricia Todd and Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez, New Hampshire Bishop Eugene Robinson and an array of activists in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement.
But it also served as a platform for Obama to deliver a strong reaffirmation of his campaign promises to achieve equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Amricans, and to put forward his view of how to accomplish this profound social advance. He sought to address criticisms that have been flaring over the pace and content of his administration’s actions on issues like the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, benefits for same-sex federal employees, and the discriminatory 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, often known by its acronym DOMA. He drew on the experiences of the African American people in their struggles for equality
“I know that many in this room don’t believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that,” Obama said. “It’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.”
“I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps,” he said. “We’ve been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.”
Earlier this month, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, who was present at yesterday’s event, noted that Obama is early in his presidency and coping with a major economic crisis that affects gays and lesbians like everyone else. But she expressed dissatisfaction with White House responses on marriage equality and other issues.
She acknowledged that passage of hate crime and employment nondiscrimination legislation and repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and DOMA “largely fall under congressional action,” but she emphasized, “I do expect the president to push for these four legislative priorities.”
Obama addressed those four points in his remarks to the White House gathering.
“I’ve called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” Obama said. He added, “Now I want to say we have a duty to uphold existing law, but I believe we must do so in a way that does not exacerbate old divides. And fulfilling this duty in upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law.”
He said he is “urging Congress to pass the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, which will guarantee the full range of benefits, including health care, to LGBT couples and their children.” In addition, he said, his administration is “working hard to pass an employee non-discrimination bill and hate crimes bill, and we’re making progress on both fronts.”
Noting the presence of Judy and Dennis Shepard and their son Logan, the parents and brother of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was tortured and murdered in Wyoming in 1998, Obama drew applause as he said, “I met with Judy in the Oval Office in May and I assured her and I assured all of you that we are going to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill into law, a bill named for their son Matthew.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA, was introduced in the House June 24 by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. It would protect against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Turning to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the president said the policy “doesn’t contribute to our national security. In fact, I believe preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security.” He said his administration is working with the Pentagon and members of the House and the Senate “on how we’ll go about ending this policy, which will require an act of Congress.” As commander-in-chief, he said, “I have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term. That’s why I’ve asked the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan for how to thoroughly implement a repeal.”
Obama emphasized his belief that advancing LGBT equality, as on other profound social advances, requires not only change in laws, but broad activism and outreach to change the American people’s thinking. He spoke at length about the Stonewall uprising and its lessons.
Referring to the isolation experienced by gays and lesbians in the repressive atmosphere of the 1960s, and the police practice of raiding bars where gays and lesbians congregated, Obama said:
“Ordinarily, the raid would come and the customers would disperse. But on this night, something was different. There are many accounts of what happened, and much has been lost to history, but what we do know is this: People didn’t leave. They stood their ground. And over the course of several nights they declared that they had seen enough injustice in their time. This was an outpouring against not just what they experienced that night, but what they had experienced their whole lives. And as with so many movements, it was also something more: It was at this defining moment that these folks who had been marginalized rose up to challenge not just how the world saw them, but also how they saw themselves.”
“As we’ve seen so many times in history, once that spirit takes hold there is little that can stand in its way,” Obama declared, with the crowd of activists applauding.
“And the riots at Stonewall gave way to protests, and protests gave way to a movement, and the movement gave way to a transformation that continues to this day. It continues when a partner fights for her right to sit at the hospital bedside of a woman she loves. It continues when a teenager is called a name for being different and says, ‘So what if I am?’ It continues in your work and in your activism, in your fight to freely live your lives to the fullest.”
Following the event, Human Rights Campaign head Joe Solomonese said in a statement, “President Obama’s remarks today were welcomed and appreciated and, as he stated, it is the actions to advance equality — not simply the words — that will be the true marker by which this White House will be judged.”
Noting that the president had “reiterated his support for most of the critical federal issues facing millions of LGBT Americans,” Solomonese said, “We must continue the hard work of turning that support into the passage of actual laws.”
suewebb @ pww.org
Corrected: An earlier version of this article erroneously characterized the Defense of Marriage Act as ‘Bush-era.’ It was signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton.