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Obama tells gay rights group he will end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

President Obama made sweeping pledges Saturday before gay and lesbian activists, promising to end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and work to undo the law that prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

Obama, addressing a gala dinner hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said he would work for “full equality” across the board. Although there have been advances in gay rights, Obama said, there are “still laws to change and hearts to open.”

The president, who has made similar pledges in the past, did not spell out a timetable for these initiatives, but he told the audience that they eventually would view “these years as a time when we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians.”

One night after winning the this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Obama arrived at the dinner-fundraiser with fence-mending to do. He acknowledged in his remarks that some gays have been dissatisfied with the pace of his reforms.

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Addressing those who stand up against discrimination, he said had a simple message: “I’m here with you in that fight.”

He added, “Do not doubt the direction we are headed and the destination we will reach.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is the Defense Department’s policy of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military so long as they do not disclose or act on their sexual orientation. Already, Obama is working with Pentagon leaders on ways to scrap the law.

“I will end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ -- that is my commitment,” Obama said to loud applause.

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He took the stage to a standing ovation and often had audience members back on their feet, applauding thunderously. “We love you!” one person cried out as Obama opened. “I love you back,” the president replied from the stage.

The federal Defense of Marriage Act, often called DOMA, allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. It also bars federal recognition of such unions.

In an address that was at times poignant and reflected on the sometimes “painful and heartbreaking” experiences gays face, Obama said he recognized that a gay relationship was “just as admirable as a relationship between a man and a woman.”

Despite the warm welcome Obama received Saturday night, some members of the gay and lesbian community have been disheartened not only by what they perceive as the president’s glacial pace, but by the one-step-forward, one-step-backward progress on the state level. Their Exhibit A is California’s Proposition 8, which halted same-sex marriages after they had been permitted by the state Supreme Court. (Obama has said he opposes same-sex marriage.)

Now activists promise to exert a new push for more rights with respect to marriage, adoption, the workplace, immigration and other realms.

Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports openly gay and lesbian office-seekers and elected officials, gives Obama a grade of “incomplete.”

Some protesters gathered outside the convention hall Saturday, and among them was Mark Katzenberger, 53, a software instructor from San Francisco, who pronounced the president’s record “miserable.” Katzenberger held a sign reading: “How about the Audacity of Action, Mr. President?”

The uneven track record to date has Cleve Jones, 54, a former aide to late gay rights leader Harvey Milk, fed up with what he termed “incrementalism” and tired of politicians telling activists to prioritize their demands. He compared his cause to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. “We want equal protection under the law on all matters governed by civil law -- in all 50 states. That’s also known as the 14th Amendment,” he said.

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Today, Jones will lead a crowd expected to reach into the thousands in a rally, billed as the National Equality March, which will culminate with a rally at the Capitol.

Obama was the second president to appear at the annual Human Rights Campaign gala. The first was President Clinton in 1997.

At Saturday’s event, one attendee after another pronounced Obama’s speech “amazing.” LaWana Mayfield, 39, a lesbian and community organizer from Charlotte, N.C., said: “He understands the importance of equality for everyone. This is his first year in office, and he has a lot of things on his plate, but I know in my heart it will get done.”

Service members and veterans were more skeptical, wanting real results.

Ainsley Kling, 26, just completed 7 1/2 years with the Coast Guard; after her commitment was up, she left voluntarily with the rank of petty officer, second class. She wished Obama had gone further and ordered a halt to all ongoing investigations under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Kling, who is lesbian, said harassment based on sexual orientation persists, recalling a Coast Guardsman who wrote “fag” on someone else’s bicycle, though neither party was believed to be homosexual.

When she wanted to write up the violation, her supervisor urged her not to do so, saying that he “knew things about me he shouldn’t know.” She did not file the report.

Pentagon figures released Friday indicate 10,507 men and women have been discharged from the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the 12 years ending in 2008. Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith declined to release the number let go under Obama, saying it would be available next spring.

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Army 1st Lt. Daniel Choi, a 28-year-old West Point graduate who is gay, served in Iraq and now faces discharge from the National Guard because he has come out about his sexual orientation. He said he liked Obama’s promises but wanted the rhetoric met by results.

“Whether it saves my career or not is not the issue,” said Choi, who lives in New York. He finds it ironic that hundreds of service members still are being investigated and booted out just as Obama weighs sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Choi wore his Army dress uniform and was accompanied to the banquet by a date, Matthew Kinsey. They kissed time and again at the behest of dinner guests with cameras.

To many gay rights activists, Obama has sent mixed signals since he took office.

Activists were rankled when the conservative Rev. Rick Warren, a high-profile backer of Proposition 8 and founder of Orange County’s Saddleback Church, gave the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.

Eight months later, the president has gotten good marks for appointing gays and lesbians to administration posts, such as John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Fred Hochberg, president of the Export-Import Bank.

On Thursday the House passed a bill that would broaden the federal hate-crime law to cover violence against gays. The measure is expected to go before the Senate within days.

Obama noted Saturday that the bill was named after Matthew Shepard, the gay college student whose killing in Wyoming in 1998 galvanized the gay rights movement. “This bill will pass, and I will sign it into law,” the president said to more cheers. His predecessor, President Bush, had threatened to veto the measure.

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kskiba@tribune.com

Peter Nicholas of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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