Will Obama, Congress Act More Quickly on Gay Rights?

Gays say patience is waning, but the power of their pressure may be limited.

Oct. 12, 2009— -- After President Obama reaffirmed his campaign promises to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans and tens of thousands of gay rights supporters marched Sunday outside his front door, it might seem the change the activists were pressing for will come quickly.

But whether broader federal protections for rights of gays and lesbians can and should come next week or next year remains a matter of debate among gays and lesbians, members of Congress and the Obama administration.

One item that has been on the gay civil rights agenda more than a decade -- expanding federal hate crimes law to include attacks based on gender, gender identity and sexual orientation -- may be resolved this week, as the Senate is expected to act on legislation passed by the House last week. Obama pledged Saturday he's ready to sign it into law.

But other issues, including ending the ban on gays and lesbians openly serving in the miluitary and overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, face slim prospects for quick action on the Hill and little effort by the president to push the matter. Patience among gays for progress on these policies -- seen as "fundamental issues of equality" -- is wearing thin.

"We are tired of the compromises and delays," Cleve Jones, organizer of Sunday's march, told ABC News. "The trouble with a long list of demands like we have is the tendency that [Congress] will ask for priorities. But there are no fractions of equality. We are equal in every respect and true equality can only come from the federal government."

Standing outside the White House Sunday, Robert Englehart, an Obama supporter and gay man, held a sign calling on the president and congressional Democrats to "Use it or Lose it," referring to the legislative mandate they hold as political majorities.

"If you have the power that you have, and you don't make the change in America that you campaigned on, then America will turn against you," Englehart said.

That reality is not lost on many in the administration, which is working feverishly to pass its signature domestic policy legislation -- health care reform. But even as thousands marched down Pennsylvannia Avenue, many gay activists conceded Obama isn't likely to advance their agenda until his first legislative priority is signed into law.

Growing Impatience for Action on Gay Civil Rights

For Englehart and thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, having to wait for broader federal support for gay rights is frustrating. But they're not ready to turn against Obama just yet.

"I'm a big supporter -- a maxed-out contributor -- for Obama," Englehart said. "But I'm just disappointed."

Sunday's National March for Equality occurred hours after 3,000 gay and lesbian advocates cheered Obama during his speech Saturday night at a dinner for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacy group.

"We've never had a stronger ally in the White House. Never," HRC president Joe Solomonese said before Obama spoke.

During his speech, the president reiterated his support for the gay community but offered no details or a timeline for when the changes in federal policy would be accomplished.

On Sunday afternoon, Leslie Tabor of New York stood across from the White House holding a brightly colored sign touting a message of love. She said that despite the fact that so far all they have gotten from Obama are "empty promises," many gays are hopeful progress is around the corner.

"The march is not a message of hate or disappointment with the president, but rather a sense of encouragement for our government to move forward," Tabor said. "He's just one man, and it's not just up to him. It takes time."

Indeed, the president acknowledged as much on Saturday when he told the crowd, "I appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough. It's not for me to tell you to be patient. ... But let me say this: we have made progress and we will make more."

There has been a flurry of action on issues important to gays in recent weeks.

On Thursday, Obama appointed David Huebner, an openly gay man, as ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa -- only the second time an openly gay person has been appointed to such a post.

The House approved a bill expanding federal hate crimes law to include gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, and the Senate is expected to take up its version of the bill this week.

Slow, 'Incremental' Progress on Gay Rights

Obama also repeated his pledge Saturday to end "don't ask, don't tell," the policy put into by the Clinton administration to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military, as long as they do not say they are gay or engage in homosexual behavior.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Sunday that a change could only come with the support of the Pentagon.

"I think it has to be done in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the military, which I think is now possible," Levin said.

Earlier this year, the president extended some federal benefits to same-sex partners of gay federal employees; the State Department moved to allow married gay and lesbian couples to obtain passports with their married names; and, the Census Bureau recently agreed to collect data on same-sex marriages. The administration is also working to end a policy that prohibits HIV-positive foreigners from entering the country.

Still, for many gays and lesbians these so-called "incremental changes" are not enough.

Richard and Tom Wilheind, both in their 70s, peered through the fence along the North Lawn of the White House with square cardboard signs dangling from their necks that read "Married for 31 Years."

"This [discrimination] has gone on now throughout our seven decades of life -- everything in our lives has been tainted by discrimination against us," Richard Wilheind said.

"When [Obama] told us he can't tell [gays] to be patient, yes he's right," Tom Wilheind said. "But he also understands we're not patient. Not anymore."

The Wilheinds were among many in Sunday's crowd loudly and colorfully expressing their impatience. As the thousands flowed by the gates of the White House, the crowd cheered, "What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!"

And sprinkled amidst the sea of rainbow flags, homemade signs read "How much longer must we wait?" and "Obama: We're Demanding, Not Asking."

Many Gays Disappointed But Still Optimistic

Walking past the White House with her soon-to-be-married lesbian daughter Cora, Connie Stubbs of Massachusetts held a sign expressing support for her daughter. Stubbs told ABC News she understands the widespread sentiment of impatience.

"I'm patient to the extent attitudes take time to change until it's a non-issue. But if it's your rights and you have to wait -- if it's your life -- you need it now," she said. "It is going to change. So let's accelerate the pace."

Some marchers called on the president to employ the same spirit of optimism he campaigned on to push for accelerated action in Congress.

"President Obama was elected on the premise there is no waiting, now is the time," said David Robinson of Silver Spring, Md.

Asked whether the president might not have the votes in Congress, Robinson said, "I don't think you know until you try. Some said we weren't ready for an African American president. That didn't stop him."