What Fresh Hell Is This?

June 30, 2009

Obama and the LGBT Community

From Salon.com:
The last time the president of the United States marked gay pride month with anything official at the White House, it was June 2006. George W. Bush decided to throw the weight of his office behind a proposal to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. After all, the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance. "Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them," Bush said at the time. "And changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure."

On Monday, 40 years and a day after the Stonewall riots began to bring the gay rights movement into the mainstream, Barack Obama took a slightly different tack. The administration brought nearly 300 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered guests -- and, in some cases, their partners or children -- to the East Room for an open bar and some hors d'ouevres. "Welcome to your White House," the president said. "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. 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."

Of course, part of the reason he hosted the event at all is that it was starting to become clear that the gay and lesbian community may not have had such good feelings about the Obama administration so far. After winning broad support from gay voters last year, Obama had promised to push Congress to overturn the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which makes it possible for states to refuse to recognize gay marriages performed in the increasing number of places that allow them. He'd sworn he would end the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which has forced more than 13,000 people out of the military since 1993. But he followed up by inviting the Rev. Rick Warren -- a prominent supporter of California's ban on gay marriage -- to speak at his inauguration. And then his Justice Department filed a brief defending the DOMA, using language that some activists read as lumping homosexuality in with incest and child marriage (though that point has also been disputed). By Monday, Obama had some damage to repair.

The Advocate on some of the damage:
The president acknowledged the frustration felt by many LGBT activists who have felt that his administration has not moved quickly enough on key pieces of legislation, such as repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.

“We've been in office six months now,” he said in an assured, matter-of-fact tone, “and I suspect that by the time this administration's over, you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.”

On policy, the president called on Congress to repeal what he called the “so-called” Defense of Marriage Act, but he also stopped short of repudiating the Justice Department’s brief supporting DOMA, which drew intense reaction from activists when it was filed earlier this month.

“I want to add, we have a duty to uphold existing law, but I believe we must do so in a way that does not exacerbate old divides,” he said, “and fulfilling this duty and upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law.”

Obama also urged passage of Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and a fully inclusive Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes bill.

The president reiterated his campaign contention that the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy undermines the effectiveness of the nation’s military.

Salon has some background on the event:
Like every event it puts on, the White House carefully managed the stagecraft at the LGBT reception. Invitations went out about a week ago, shortly after aides began to realize the grumbling among gay activists was teetering on the edge of becoming a real political problem -- the reception was the second move to ease concerns, after an order Obama issued two weeks ago to give some domestic-partner benefits to some gay and lesbian employees of some federal agencies. Media access to the event was limited; a small group of reporters and a camera crew were allowed in, but officials directed attendees to leave through the White House's East Wing, which meant there was little danger they would wander past the press workspace attached to the West Wing on the other side of the building. Perhaps as a result, the media's interest was also limited -- cable networks didn't bother carrying Obama's full remarks live.
And they point out the event "may have helped buy him some, well, patience" but the LA Times adds:
Obama is hoping his gay supporters will wait. But patience is starting to ebb.

"People feel they've been patient for a long time," said Leslie Calman, executive director of the National Lesbian Health Organization's Mautner Project. "They feel President Obama is on our side and want to see something concrete as soon as possible."
From Salon:
Still, the message Obama was trying to convey -- relax, I'm with you -- seemed to sink in. "He's been in office six months, and in six months, not much has happened to help us," said Jerry Hoose, one of the two Stonewall veterans who met Obama privately before the meeting, and a founder of the Gay Liberation Front in New York not long after Stonewall. "But again, six months. I mean, what do you expect? The man is president, not a miracle worker." If nothing has changed a few years from now, keeping gay and lesbian supporters in Obama's corner may indeed take a political miracle. For now, though, the White House is hoping some kind words will do.
The full text of his remarks can be found here.

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