Obama Reaches Out to Gay Community at White House Event
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
President Obama opened the doors of the White House to hundreds of gay and lesbian leaders yesterday, continuing his cautious outreach to a constituency that has loudly criticized his efforts on its behalf.
In an event in the East Room marking the 40th anniversary of the riots surrounding New York's Stonewall Inn, where gay patrons rose up against a police raid in Greenwich Village, Obama sought to reassure guests that he had not abandoned the issues important to them. He also drew a parallel between the progress gays and lesbians have made in recent decades and the struggles of black Americans to win equality.
"The truth is, when these folks protested at Stonewall 40 years ago, no one could have imagined that you or, for that matter, I would be standing here today," Obama said, promising to continue to push to overturn several laws that are anathema to gay activists.
His comments were received enthusiastically by some attendees. "This is so incredibly historic and symbolic," Mitchell Gold, a gay rights activist from North Carolina, said after leaving the White House. "I don't think for a minute that we can forget that under the Bush administration we didn't see that."
Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist, said Obama gave "people confidence that he understood their movement, understood their struggle, and had a plan to do something about it."
But the excitement among many of the several hundred guests invited to the White House was tempered by frustration among some who say they think the president has moved too slowly to make good on his campaign promises.
That frustration has centered on Obama not taking quick, unilateral action to end discrimination against gays in the military and on his administration's support for a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.
"Cocktail parties are fun, but if we are impatient, there's a reason," said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, who said he was not invited to the White House event. "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 exists."
He compared the Obama event to an unsatisfying meal, calling it "nouveau cuisine" and adding: "It costs a whole lot to get into the White House, but somehow, the meal feels unfulfilling."
Even Gold, who called the president "courageous" for holding the event, conceded that it did little to soothe the concerns of a community of people who expected Obama to change their world.
"It doesn't take away the pain that the Justice Department issued a brief equating gays to pedophiles and incest," he said. "It doesn't take the pain away that 'don't ask, don't tell' hasn't been sent to Congress to be repealed."
Obama confronted that criticism yesterday, renewing his campaign promises to overturn the military policy on gays, repeal the marriage act and pass a federal hate-crimes bill named for Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was slain in Wyoming in 1998.