At White House, Obama Aims to Reassure Gays

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps," the president said to sustained applause. "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."

The administration has been attempting to tread cautiously with the gay community. While it says it intends to follow through on Obama's campaign pledges, it is also eager to avoid the appearance that the president is giving in to any one group's demands.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the event was not designed as a way to mollify the gay community or reward its support during the campaign. Several activists familiar with the planning said it had been in the works for months.

"We didn't play a lot of interest-group-based politics in the presidential race," Gibbs said.

But the necessity of such a direct restatement of the president's promises underscores the intensity with which one of Obama's key constituencies has expressed its disappointment in him during the past several weeks.

On the Internet, activists, bloggers and others have been criticizing him for not moving faster to unwind what they consider to be years of government inattention or active opposition.

In an open letter dated June 15, Joe Solmonese of Human Rights Campaign skewered the administration's legal brief filed in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, a step the White House said it is obligated to take when a law is challenged in court.

"As an American, a civil rights advocate, and a human being, I hold this administration to a higher standard than this brief," he wrote. "We call on you to put your principles into action and send legislation repealing DOMA to Congress."

Yesterday, Solmonese sounded far more optimistic that the Obama he initially thought would lead from the White House will emerge.

"He reminded us to continue to hold him accountable," he said after the event. "There certainly was the appropriate and inspiring acknowledgment that he made of what this community has been through."

Solmonese said the event helped reassure gays and lesbians "that the work continues, that the commitment is still there," adding: "It's important for people to be reassured by the president."

But other invitees left with a continuing belief that the change under Obama will not be as rapid as they might have hoped.

"We are a movement that's been waiting a very, very long time," said one gay rights activist who attended the White House event. "The last time we thought we saw some hope for our issues was [President Bill] Clinton, and we wound up with 'don't ask, don't tell.' "

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