Facing a political backlash from an important voting bloc, President Obama met with leaders of the gay and lesbian community Monday, asking for patience and assuring them that in time he will usher in policy changes that protect them from discriminatory treatment.
“We’ve been in office six months now,” the president said. “I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.”
Obama is under mounting pressure to fulfill campaign promises to repeal laws barring gays from serving openly in the military and proclaiming marriage to be a union between a man and a woman.
Gay leaders also are unhappy about a legal brief submitted by Obama’s Justice Department that gave a vigorous defense of the federal marriage law passed in 1996. The act holds that states need not recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
Obama, joined by his wife, Michelle, told the 250-some elected officials and activists that he was required to uphold federal laws even if he personally disagreed with them. By the end of his tenure, he said, he will have taken steps that gays and lesbians long have hoped to see.
The reception was warm. People gathered in the East Room of the White House shouted, “Thank you, Mr. President” and “Love you.”
But afterward, some guests echoed a point made by Obama: What matters is not supportive rhetoric but concrete steps toward fuller equality.
“While we appreciate that this president has given voice to so many important issues the gay and lesbian community faces, we also want him to take bold action,” said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Boston-based Family Equality Council, an advocacy group.
The occasion for the meeting Monday was the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, considered the opening of the modern gay rights movement. Patrons at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village clashed with police during a raid in June 1969.
Invited to the White House event were major figures in the gay rights movement, including Frank Kameny, who lost his job as a government astronomer because of his sexual orientation. Kameny led a protest outside the White House in 1965, a risky thing to do in that era, Obama said.
Some in attendance applauded Obama for assembling such a large group of gay and lesbian leaders in the White House.
“The very fact that he would invite 200 LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] leaders from across the nation on the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the gay liberation movement is just an astounding thing,” said Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who is gay. “Most people were standing around not believing they were actually guests in the White House. He expressed his opposition to the same things that we’re all opposed to, and his support for things we hope to see happen: the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ employment nondiscrimination and the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act.”
Recognizing a breach with gay supporters, the White House has taken conspicuous steps to demonstrate the president is committed to gay rights. On June 17, Obama extended certain benefits to gay and lesbian federal employees. He also proclaimed this month “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.”
But disappointment persists. Some in the gay community are upset by the legal brief filed by the Obama administration in support of the Defense of Marriage Act. Two California men have sued to overturn the act, and the Justice Department defended the law’s recognition of “a centuries-old form of marriage.”
“I’ve called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act to help end discrimination against same-sex couples in this country,” Obama said. “Now, 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. And fulfilling this duty in upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law.”
But that’s not likely to happen right away. Obama and Congress are devoting most of their energy to passing a healthcare overhaul and a sweeping new energy policy. With such a busy agenda, White House and congressional leaders have been reluctant to overload the political machinery in Washington by pushing through more controversial legislation.
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.”