President Barack Obama wowed a crowd of gay rights activists Saturday night with an impassioned defense of equality for gays and lesbians, but he offered no new commitments to assuage concerns that he has given a low priority to issues critical to the gay and lesbian community.
Obama received a series of rousing ovations from the more than 2,000 attendees at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner in Washington as he insisted he is fully committed to their cause.
"I’m here with a simple message: I’m here with you in that fight," Obama declared.
The president was quick to acknowledge the impatience many gay activists have expressed about his failure to carry through on campaign promises regarding gays in the military and other issues.
"I also appreciate that many of you don’t believe progress has some fast enough. I want to be honest about that," Obama said. "Even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot and will not put aside issues of basic equality."
"We should not be punishing Patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness," Obama said. "I’m working with the Pentagon and its leadership and members of the House and Senate on ending this policy…I will end don’t ask don’t tell. That’s my commitment to you" he said to a raucous ovation.
But while emphatically renewing his pledge to end the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers and sailors, Obama gave no timetable for making the change, and no promise to put an immediate stop to discharges based on sexual orientation.
Obama's comments did omit some of the qualifications he expressed during a speech to gay leaders at the White House in June.
"As Commander-in-Chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term," he said then.
But while the speech was applauded in the hall, reaction outside of it was was harsher, with many prominent gay voices concerned by the president's lack of specifics.
Prominent gay blogger John Aravosis, in a post entitled "Where's the Beef?", wrote that "Obama repeated his campaign promises. That was it."
"An opportunity was missed tonight," said Kevin Dix of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which had urged Obama to set a deadline for ending Don't Ask Don't Tell. "When are we going to get this done? We didn't hear any of that tonight"
Obama "said on health care if you want to get anything done in Washington, set a timeline," said Dix. "We're just following what he laid out."
At one point, Obama conceded that some gay issues have been sidetracked by the economic slump and other crises.
"Progress may be taking longer than you would like as a result of all that we face. Do not doubt the direction we are headed and the destination we will reach," he said.
Obama also asked the gay and lesbian activists not to view their agenda as limited solely to gay civil rights issues.
"I think it’s important to remember there is not a single issue my administration deals with on daily basis that does not touch on the lives of the LGBT community. We all have stake in reviving this economy. We all have stake in putting people back to work," he said. "While some may wish to define you solely by your sexual orientation or gender identity alone, you know and I know that none of us wants to be defined by just one part of what makes us whole."
Some activists were eager to hear Obama address gay marriage battles taking place across the country. Obama is only partially aligned with gay advocates on the issue. While he says he personally opposes same-sex marriage, he has also opposed efforts to block or overturn gay marriage at the state level and has called for repeal of a federal law that limits recognition of same-sex couples, the Defense of Marriage Act.
"My expectation is when you look back on these years, you will see a time when we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians, whether in the office or on the battlefield. You’ll see a time in which we as a nation finally recognize relationships between two men and two women as just as real and admirable as relationships between a man and a woman," he said as applause thundered to a crescendo.
However, Obama’s speech was carefully worded to sidestep his disapproval of gay marriage. He also disappointed some in the crowd by referring to the state marriage battles only in vague terms.
"I support ensuring that committed gay couples have the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country. I believe strongly in stopping laws designed to take rights away and passing laws that extend equal rights to gay couples,"
Obama alluded briefly to conservative attacks on some of his gay and lesbian appointees. In recent days, a gay Education Department official and a lesbian nominee for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been the subject of strident criticism from conservative groups and media outlets.
"If any of my nominees are attacked not for what they believe but because of who they are, I will not waver in my support," Obama said, without elaborating.
In his 25-minute speech, the president repeatedly linked the fight for gay rights to the civil rights struggle Africans Americans faced in the 1960s.
"These ideals when voiced by generations of citizens are what made it possible for me to stand here today. These ideals are what made it possible for the people in this room to live freely and openly……..That is the promise of America," Obama said.
The reception Obama received as he began his speech was so warm that he joked: "You’re making me blush."
About 50 gay-rights demonstrators outside the convention center were more confrontational.
"A Chicago welcome for Obama: Keep your @#%! Promises!" one sign read. "How about the audacity of action Mr. President!" another said.
"Obama, Obama let mama marry mama," the group chanted as it marched on the sidewalk before Obama’s talk.
Obama was introduced by Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese, who gave the president some political cover by telling attendees that the White House has been vigorous in pushing for hate crimes legislation—even if the work has gained little attention.
"We have never had a stronger ally in the White House—never," Solmonese insisted. "The word from this White House, unlike the last White House was, ‘Get on with it. No more delays. No more poison pill amendments. Get on with it…. We seldom see what goes on behind the scenes. It was formidable and I thank them."