President Obama's eloquent speech on
gay rights delivered Monday at a White House East Room reception
appears to have failed to unite the gay community behind him.
The event comes on the fortieth
anniversary of the Stonewall riots, often considered the birth of the
modern gay rights movement.
Obama paid tribute to the legacy of the
“Now 40 years ago, in the heart of
New York City at a place called the Stonewall Inn, a group of
citizens … defied an unjust policy and awakened a nascent
“The police stormed the bar, which
was known for being one of the few spots where it was safe to be gay
in New York. … But on this night, something was different. … 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.”
Obama described the gay rights movement
as a “difficult struggle,” and “heartbreaking.” He called
gay rights civil rights, and drew parallels to prior civil rights
battles. And told the crowd that he understood their frustrations.
Then, he asked the crowd for patience.
“I want you to know that I expect and
hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the
promises that my administration keeps. … 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,” he said.
Gay rights leaders in attendance
appeared assured by the president. But not mollified were activists
absent from the event: The president's loudest antagonists on gay and
lesbian rights. They include gay activist David Mixner, Marriage
Equality Executive Director Evan Wolfson, Equality California
Executive Director Geoff Korrs, gay activist Richard Socarides,
Empire Pride Agenda Executive Director Alan Van Capelle, gay
philanthropist Bruce Bastian and GLAD Executive Director Mary
The list of the uninvited reads like a
who's who of Obama gay rights bashers. And for them, Obama's remarks
“Cocktail parties are fun, but if we
are impatient, there's a reason,” Van Capelle, told the Washington
Post. “There are a lot of us who believe in change but do not
believe it is a passive word. It is an active word. There is a
level of disappointment that exits.”
He compared the event to an expensive
meal, saying: “It costs a whole lot to get into the White House,
but somehow, the meal feels unfulfilling.”
These gay activists have been
frustrated by the administration's hesitation to act on pressing gay
rights issues. Candidate Obama promised to repeal “don't ask,
don't tell,” the law that bans opens gay service in the military,
and the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, the 1996 law that bans gay
marriage at the federal level.
President Obama insists he is working
with Congress and the Pentagon to repeal the military gay ban
legislatively, but activists say he could issue an executive order
that ends military discharges as the policy is under review.
And earlier this month, the Obama
administration raised the hackles of gay activists when the
Department of Justice defended DOMA in federal court. Activists
called the brief filed appalling for its comparisons of gay marriages
to incestuous and polygamous relationships, and its use of outdated
Officials have said the administration
is duty-bound to defend the laws of the land, even as it works to
repeal them. An argument Obama reiterated twice Monday.
On DOMA he said: “Now I want to add
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. I've made that clear.”
And on “don't ask, don't tell:”
[A]s commander in chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility
to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way
that takes over the long term.”
Attendees to the White House version of
Gay Pride left feeling reassured of the administration's commitment
to gay rights.
Joe Solmonese, president of Human
Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocate, said the
event reassured him “that the commitment was still there.”
But on the Internet, bloggers came to
very different conclusions.
“All in all, the president gave a
very eloquent speech,” Joe Sudbay wrote in post at AmericaBlog.
“But, you know what, we've heard those speeches already. He's the
president now, not some candidate. He can do more than talk. And so
far, he's chosen not to, and made up some flimsy excuses to justify
his actions. And, while many of the so-called gay 'leaders' in the
East Room may be assuaged and bought off with the promise of
champagne and a heartfelt 'God bless you' from the man who promised
much, lots more people are mad as hell and starting to think they're
being taken for a ride.”
And there's the rub: Insiders take
Obama at his word, that he is working on repealing anti-gay laws even
as military discharges soar past 265 under his watch and DOMA is
being defended by his administration, while outsiders, at best,
believe Obama has punted gay rights into his second term.