Obama drew early and enthusiastic applause from the crowd of 250-300 LGBT families, volunteers, community leaders, federal employees, state and local lawmakers, and heads of LGBT lobbying/activist organizations gathered in the East Room as he called out greetings to openly gay appointees and gay rights activists, then delivered remarks for about 20 minutes. (Hear audio of Obama's remarks here.)
"Welcome to your White House," he said to the crowd as he addressed it.
As noted elsewhere, Obama has yet to earn the trust of many in the gay political community. His administration hasn't prioritized a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in Congress; its Justice Department defended the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Clinton-signed bill that defines marriage as between a man and a woman--an opinion that's been called insulting to the gay community. He doesn't believe in gay marriage. The message gays have been gleaning from the administration thusfar is: be patient.
Obama confronted that sentiment in his remarks.
"Now I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It's not for me to tell you to be paitent any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago," Obama said.
"But I say this: we have made progress, and we will make more. And 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," he said, drawing applause.
"We've been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys'll have pretty good feelings about the Obama adminsitration," the president said.
He was certainly right about some of that: gay leaders don't think change has come quickly enough, and every day that goes by without advancements of gay rights they see as an affront.
Obama then got into some points on the gay rights agenda, making promises or signaling progress on each item. He touted the extension of benefits to LGBT partners and families of federal employees and the advancement of hate crimes legislation through the House.
He sought to justify the Justice Dept.'s defense of DOMA: "We have a duty to uphold existing law, but I believe we must do so in a way that does not exascerbate old divides, and fulfilling this duty and upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law," he said, later calling again on Congress to reverse it.
He credited the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the lack of progress on Don't Ask, Don't Tell: "Someday, I'm confident, we'll look back at this transition and ask why it generated such angst. But as 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," Obama said, giving a nod to the continued dismissals of openly gay servicemen and women and the "deep disappointment" they've caused those who've been dismissed.
All of the policy talk got less applause than the opening; but it got mild, and sometimes raucous (on the hate crimes bill), applause nonetheless.
As one gay rights leader noted this morning, people are generally excited to go to the White House, and despite the skepticism, attendees would be in a good mood regardless of the content of the event, though they'd be hoping to feel good about things as they left.
It's also worth pointing out that not all 250-300 of those in attendance were the hard-nosed lobbyist/presidents of gay rights lobbying groups, and I suspect many of them don't have the acerbic political instincts that go with that territory.
When asked why the crowd cheered Obama despite so much skepticism, one source who was in attendance retorted, "His finance committee was there," an observation I did not take literally, nor did I confirm.
So the crowd may have had something to do with Obama's warm reception.
As the president closed, praising the Stonewall protesters who 40 years ago gave birth to the gay rights movement in America--two of whom were in attendance in the East Room--Obama seemed to accrue historical cred by honoring that movement in the White House, on its anniversary--a significant historical fact in itself, and one that was not lost on those in attendance. Raucous applause ensued, with one person yelling, "We love you!"
"There was warmth, but there was also trepidation," said the head of one gay group, who attended the reception. "On the one hand, no event like this has ever happened, and President Obama said words no [president] had ever said before about the gay community being part of his America and his administration, and that has a very powerful effect."
"There's an impatience that many of us feel because, every day, gay servicemembers who are serving with honor are being discharged, and he has not stopped that," the group leader said. "We want the Obama that we believed in and helped to elect" during the campaign.
The Obama that showed up in the East Room was the campaign Obama, the advocate said.
Obama's speech didn't signify any major policy development or major action; it didn't bump Don't Ask, Don't Tell or DOMA higher on his administration's legizlative agenda, which is what gay activists want. But Obama paid tribute to the history of the LGBT movement, and the crowd was most pleased. And he didn't say "be patient"--even though he sort of did.
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