At St. John's church this morning, President Obama heard a sermon in which the pastor said, “Our God demands boldness from us.”
The sermon came just hours after President Obama delivered a speech to a gala benefiting the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights organization. Obama has been criticized for being insufficiently bold on concrete actions he will take to fulfill campaign promises regarding gay and lesbian rights issues.
"I'm here with a simple message: I'm here with you in that fight," President Obama told roughly 3,000 attendees of the $250-a-seat black-tie dinner at the Washington Convention Center. "For even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot and we will not put aside issues of basic equality."
The president said that "nobody in America should be fired because they're gay, despite doing a great job and meeting their responsibilities. It's not fair, it's not right. We're going to put a stop to it. And it's for this reason if any of my nominees are attacked not for what they believe but for who they are, I will not waver in my support because I will not waver in my commitment to ending discrimination in all its forms.
"Do not doubt [that’s] the direction we are headed and the destination we will reach," President Obama said. "We have made progress, and we will make more."
"I thought it was a forcefully delivered argument for full equality, but very slim on the details," said attendee Richard Socarides, a former special assistant to President Clinton.
By now in Obama's presidency "there should be more," Socarides said.
HRC president Joe Solmonese, however, lauded that "President Obama told LGBT Americans that his commitment to ending discrimination in the military, in the workplace and for loving couples and their families is “unwavering.” He made it crystal clear that he is our strongest ally in this fight, that he understands and, in fact, encourages our activism and our voice even when we’re impatient with the pace of change.
“But these remarks weren’t just for us,” Solmonese said. “They were directed to all Americans who share his dream and ours of a country where no one is denied their basic rights, in which all of us are free to live and love as we see fit.”
Solmonese called it "a historic night when we felt the full embrace and commitment of the president of the United States. It’s simply unprecedented."
President Obama didn't make any new proposals or offer any timelines for when he would enact old ones.
Though breaking news headlines from other media outlets proclaimed that President Obama Saturday night pledged to end the "don't ask-don't tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the US military — "I will end 'don't ask-don't tell,’” he said to a standing ovation — that pledge is almost 2 years old.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which supports overturning the policy, said in a statement that "an opportunity was missed" in the president's speech since "the President did not outline a timeline and specifics for repeal. The 65,000 gay and lesbian service members–who put their lives on the line and who remain impatient with the pace of progress–deserve to know when their commander in chief and Congress plan on getting rid of this law."
On NBC's “Meet the Press” Sunday, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed the president's policy and deliberativeness, saying the policy needs to be overturned "with thoughtfulness and with care and with a buy-in from the military."
In November 2007, President Obama said, "America is ready to get rid of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. All that is required is leadership."
So far, however, many gay and lesbian rights activists have been disappointed by what they see as lack of leadership on these issues, if not downright hypocrisy.
In June the Obama Justice Department filed a brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which upset gays and lesbians by seeming to compare the illegitimacy of same-sex couples to that of incestuous couples.
And an official with the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP gay and lesbian rights group, last night questioned how the president could promise to repeal "don't ask-don't tell" while the Obama Justice Department fights the organization's lawsuit challenging it on behalf of Alexander Nicholson, a former U.S. Army Human Intelligence Collector who speaks multiple languages, who was discharged six months after 9/11 because he's gay.
The president acknowledged criticism in his speech. "I appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough," Obama said. "I greatly appreciate the support I've received from many in this room. I also appreciate that many of you don't believe that progress has come fast enough. I want to be honest about that because it's important to be honest amongst friends."
Last night President Obama referenced his presidential memoranda from June in which he extended some benefits — though not health, retirement, or survivor benefits — to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
Several gay writers were quite critical of the speech. Andrew Sullivan called much of the speech "campaign boilerplate. This speech could have been made – and was made – a year ago." Sullivan said Obama's "major achievement – the one thing he has actually done – is invite gay families to the Easter Egg Roll” at the White House.
Of the president's remarks that he'd called on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, Sullivan wrote, "Does he think we're fools? He has done nothing to advance this."
Wrote Dan Savage, "Imagine all the wonderful things this guy is going to accomplish if he ever actually gets elected president. In other words: sorry, folks, nothing new to see here. Pledges, promises, excuses. Lip service."
President Obama pledged last night that "You will see a time in which we as a nation finally recognize relationships between two men or two women as just as real and admirable as relationships between a man and a woman."
Of this, John Aravosis, the editor of AMERICAblog.com, wrote, "The president claimed that he's for treating gay couples just like married couples. Then why is he against letting gay couples marry?" He concluded, "All in all, the evening was a disappointment, but not unexpected. President Obama doesn't do controversy, and we, my friends, are controversy. So, the bad blood between this administration and the gay community will remain, and continue to worsen. It's unfortunate, but at some point you have to have enough dignity to say enough is enough. The Obama administration doesn't respect our community, and doesn't respect the seriousness of our cause. It's our job to hold them accountable. And we will."
Conservative critics assailed President Obama even talking to the group. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins called "shocking … the radical cultural changes that the President promised to this audience."
"What the President neglected to mention was that all of this will be forced on the American people who in the last election gave the President a mandate to fix the economy," Perkins said, "not enact radical social policy changes such as allowing homosexuals to serve in the military."
Special guests at the dinner included Lady Gaga and cast members from the Fox television show “Glee.”