Obama's Delicate Dance with Lesbian, Gay Community

President and gay activists prepare to face off again over urgency of equality.

October 5, 2009, 3:48 PM

Oct. 6, 2009— -- As debates rage on health care, Afghanistan, and environmental policy, President Obama is about to take another step in his delicate dance with the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community -- a group that continues to demand more presidential involvement in issues that affect its members.

In what some gay rights activists call a "significant show of support," the president will deliver the keynote address Saturday at the annual gathering of the Human Rights Campaign -- the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization.

Obama will become only the second sitting president to address the HRC. Bill Clinton spoke to the group in 1997.

"We are honored to share this night with President Obama, who has called upon our nation to embrace LGBT people as brothers and sisters," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese in a statement.

The speech will take place hours before thousands of gay-rights supporters are expected to descend on Washington to march in support of greater legal protections. It also comes after months of criticism by many prominent LGBT leaders -- who feel Obama has not kept the promises he made to advance equality.

"There are unjust laws to overturn and unfair practices to stop," Mr. Obama said at a LGBT event in the East Room in June.

Speaking then before a crowd of 200 prominent activists, the President outlined his support for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, extending federal benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, and extending employment-discrimination and hate-crime protection to gays and lesbians. He also said the Defense Department's "don't ask, don't tell" policy works against America's national security.

"This struggle continues today, for even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot and will not put aside issues of basic equality," Obama said in June. "We seek an America in which no one feels the pain of discrimination based on who you are or who you love."

But during the first nine months of the Obama Presidency there has been limited action on those issues of "basic equality." Many gay activists say they are frustrated that their issues have had to wait.

Gays and Obama: Progress, but Fast Enough?

In early June the President did sign a memorandum guaranteeing benefits like relocation and emergency evacuation to same-sex partners of federal workers -- but health and pension benefits were not included.

At the White House Press Briefing Monday, ABC News' David Wright asked Press Secretary Robert Gibbs why the President has not used an executive order to offer domestic partnership benefits -- particularly health-care and pension benefits -- to same-sex partners of federal employees.

"The president has been working on it. I don't have an update on it. But we talked about that a few months ago, about extending some benefits," Gibbs said.

Will health benefits be included? "I don't have an update on where we are," Gibbs replied.

On "don't ask, don't tell," the White House has also quietly continued to consider the way forward.

Obama National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones told CNN on Sunday the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would be taken on by the President "at an appropriate time."

"The President has an awful lot on -- on his desk," Jones said. "I know this is an issue that he intends to take on…but at the right time…. It's not years, but I think -- I think it will be teed up appropriately."

There is no saying yet whether those statements and the President's address on Saturday will soothe discontent among gays and lesbians.

On the website EqualityAcross America.com, hosted by organizers of Sunday's GLBT march, a posted message asks: "Will the president appear at the March itself, an event partially driven by his own lack of progress on LGBT rights? And what about that golf tournament in San Francisco?"

In June, Obama told the last large LGBT audience he addressed, "I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. But let me say this: We have made progress. And we will make more."

It is a refrain some advocates say they expect to hear again on Saturday when the President takes the stage.