As Pressure Grows, Obama Addresses Gay Rights Group

By Michael D. Shear, Anne E. Kornblut and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 11, 2009

President Obama, struggling to keep promises he made during last year's campaign, renewed his pledge to end the military's ban on openly gay service members as he appeared at a fundraising dinner for the nation's largest gay advocacy group on Saturday night.

"I will end 'don't ask, don't tell,' " Obama said at the Human Rights Campaign dinner. Recounting the ongoing effort to bring full civil rights to gays and lesbians, the president said: "I'm here with a simple message: I'm here with you in that fight."

Obama did not offer specifics on how he would advance the cause of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, or of same-sex marriage, two areas where his inaction as president have disappointed many gay supporters.

But on the eve of a major gay rights rally in Washington, an event aimed in part at pressuring Obama and Congress, the president was met with a standing ovation and resounding cheers. Obama acknowledged the frustration of some activists, portraying himself as a forceful ally in a lengthy fight. And while he said that gay rights are only one part of his agenda, which is loaded down with domestic and international challenges, he said that would not deter him.

"My commitment to you is unwavering, even as we wrestle with these enormous problems," Obama said. "Do not doubt the direction we are headed and the destination we will reach."

Just days after winning the presidency, Obama vowed that he would be "a fierce advocate for gay and lesbian Americans."

But nine months later, many in the community say he has done little to make good on that statement. They accuse the president of putting their agenda on the back burner -- behind Wall Street regulation, health care, climate change and a series of foreign-policy issues. And although his sweeping rhetoric is appreciated, many are concerned that he has so far offered little beyond the symbolic and the incremental.

Many gay rights activists are disappointed that Obama has not moved forward on two major issues: ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, under which gay soldiers can be discharged for their sexual orientation; and his failure to work toward ending the Defense of Marriage Act.

"As someone who supported Barack Obama early on during the primaries, and raised nearly $50,000 for him during the campaign, it gives me no pleasure to burst the pink champagne bubbles of hope," John Aravosis, a gay rights activist and popular blogger, wrote in the Huffington Post. "But President Obama's track record on keeping his gay promises has been fairly abominable."

Protesters gathered outside the Washington Convention Center before the event began, some demanding that Obama take greater action on gay rights, others carrying apocalyptic warnings about the fate of the country should he do so. "America is doomed," one sign read.

But inside the $250-a-plate black-tie event, some 3,000 guests from around the country were in a festive mood. Pop singer Lady Gaga and cast members from the Fox comedy "Glee" performed at the dinner. C-SPAN broadcast Obama's portion of the event live -- one sign of the interest surrounding his first address to a big gay rights gathering as president.

To date, Obama has delayed action on gays in the military, saying his generals are reviewing the issue. And although he has said he supports an eventual repeal of the marriage act, his Justice Department has defended the statute in court, saying it is the agency's responsibility to do so until Congress changes the law.

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