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.
Taken together, those things have angered many gays and lesbians, who have been among Obama's most ardent supporters. Some, in sharp contrast to pro-Obama rallies during the campaign, have begun to stage protests to demand action by the administration.
Obama's top domestic policy aides insist that the president is committed to an equality agenda for gays and lesbians. They note that he has moved quickly on smaller issues that did not require congressional approval.
The president extended some benefits to the spouses of gay federal employees in June while voicing support for a House bill that grants them other rights. The State Department now allows married gay and lesbian couples to obtain passports with their married names. And the Census Bureau has agreed to release data on same-sex marriages.
But Obama is also clearly mindful of the politics of the combustible issue. Opposition remains strong in much of the country to extending rights to gays, especially where marriage is concerned.
House Democrats introduced a bill last month that would repeal the marriage act, but polls consistently show that opponents of legalizing same-sex marriage outnumber supporters. Twenty-nine states have banned same-sex marriage.
Aides have signaled that efforts to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act will have to take a back seat to other domestic priorities during the president's first term. That is an indication Obama wants to avoid the mistakes that Bill Clinton made when he attempted to allow gays to serve in the military during the first days of his presidency.
But Obama has also repeatedly dangled the promise of action in his own comments on the issues. At a White House gathering of gay and lesbian activists in the East Room in June, Obama confronted the disappointment directly but pleaded for more time to make good.
"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 White House distributed tickets to gay families to attend the annual Easter Egg Roll this year, hosted a Gay Pride Month celebration and will hold a series of public forums to help develop a national HIV/AIDS strategy. And the administration is taking steps to end a policy that prohibits HIV-positive foreigners from entering the country.
Obama also awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously to Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor and gay activist. The president picked John Berry to serve as director of the Office of Personnel Management, making him the highest-ranking openly gay official in U.S. history.
One victory that appears near is the passage of hate-crimes legislation that would broaden the definition of federal hate crimes to include attacks based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The House passed the legislation last week. Final action in the Senate is expected this week.
Similar bills languished for years under the weight of veto threats from President George W. Bush and Republican opposition in the Congress. But Obama has said he will eagerly sign the bill, which has become a centerpiece of the gay civil rights agenda.
Staff writers Ben Pershing and Jason Horowitz contributed to this report.