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White House honors Stonewall anniversary
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White House honors Stonewall anniversary

by Lisa Keen - Keen News Service

On Monday, June 29, President Barack Obama urged the LGBT community to judge him 'not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps.'

'I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough,' said Obama, speaking to a large gathering of LGBT people in the East Room of the White House Monday afternoon. "It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago. But I say this: We have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps."

To that he added: "I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."

The 300 or so LGBT people gathered for the historic White House celebration of the 40th anniversary of Stonewall appeared to have "pretty good feelings" about the Obama administration already. The crowd cheered as the president and first lady were introduced and entered the room, taking about three minutes to reach the podium, as they shook hands with various invited guests.

The enthusiastic reception stood in contrast to a battery of media reports examining the growing criticism of the Obama administration from the LGBT community. Although the president did not explicitly address one of the key criticisms - a brief from the Department of Justice in a Gay marriage case in California which many LGBT leaders found offensive - he did say, about the Defense of Marriage Act, "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," said Obama. "I've made that clear."

Concerning his commitment to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Obama said, "I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term. That's why I've asked the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan for how to thoroughly implement a repeal."

Jason Bartlett, an openly Gay state representative from Connecticut and a spokesperson for the National Black Justice Coalition, said he was "very happy" with the president's remarks and saw them as "recommitting himself to and affirming the LGBT agenda."

"The more times he gives a speech such as that, the better it is for our constituency," said Bartlett. "I think he's asking us to be patient, but I don't think people should stop agitating or stop doing a variety of grassroots activities. But I do think I agree that, in four years, we're all going to look back and be satisfied.'

Mitchell Gold, founder of Faith in America and a guest at the event, said he thinks the president's remarks could go a long way to mitigate some of the anger in the community over the administration's slow progress towards its LGBT campaign promises thus far. But he said he would expect that anger to re-emerge should the administration not be able to pass hate crimes or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) "quickly."

"I think the community will be patient for about two months or so," said Gold. Gold said he was able to speak with the president's chief political strategist David Axelrod at the event and express to him "that the community has a legitimate beef in the administration not moving quickly, and over the DOJ brief," said Gold. Gold said Axelrod told him, "they are determined to make progress" and that "you're right to push-keep pushing."

Renee Rosenfield, 91, of New York City was one of the guests. She had just become involved with Senior Action in Gay Environment in June 1969 when the Stonewall Rebellion took place. She called the event "a wonderful thing" and said she never could imagine, 40 years ago, being at such an event today. Rosenfield was there with her partner of more than 20 years, Madelin Alk, 88.

That sentiment was shared by Tommy Schmidt, 61, one of two "Stonewall participants" who were invited to the event. Schmidt said he and the second participant, Gerry Hoose, were able to meet privately with the president and first lady prior to the event and have their picture taken with them.

"It was magnificent," said Schmidt of the event. "Never have Gay people been received with such openness as with this president. & This is the culmination of people pushing" for LGBT equality, and we have to work to keep pushing for that."

The president spoke for more than 20 minutes and, according to guests at the event, he and the first lady shook hands with a number of people before exiting. (Reporters were ushered out of the room shortly after the president finished his remarks.)

The ceremony at the White House marked the end of an unexpectedly difficult LGBT Pride Month for the Obama administration. Many in the community had already begun to openly express their impatience with the president on LGBT issues. President Obama had appointed a number of openly Gay people to high office, but none to the cabinet. Prior to June, he had taken no steps at all to improve conditions for LGBT people in the military, in the civil service, or in the country. And, though he had been the most vocally supportive major party presidential nominees in history on the campaign trail, in the White House, Obama had suddenly lost his voice completely on LGBT equality.

But June was different. On June 1, the White House announced the president had signed an LGBT Pride Proclamation, as President Clinton had done during his administration. He signed a presidential memorandum that directed federal agencies to determine whether they could provide at least two benefits to employees with same-sex domestic partners (and more for State Department employees). He expressed support for a new bill calling for fully equal benefits for federal employees with domestic partners.

Although there was no paper trail, he apparently directed the Census Bureau to count legally married same-sex couples as "husband and wife" in the 2010 census. And, during a small, evening ceremony on the Oval Office, to sign the civil service memorandum, he reiterated that he is committed to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don't Ask-Don't Tell laws and working for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the hate crimes bill.

But his relationship with the LGBT community still seems uneasy. On June 22, 77 members of the House signed a letter to President Obama asking him to sign an executive order to stop the military from any further discharges under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Last Thursday, June 25, demonstrators picketed outside a pricey Gay Democratic fundraiser to send a message to the keynote speaker, Vice President Joe Biden. According to a White House pool reporter on the scene, about 50 protesters held up signs saying, "No Money for DOMA," "No Money for DADT," and "Gay Uncle Toms." Video of the event showed that many demonstrators were holding signs with the number "265," representing the number of servicemembers who have been discharged for being gay since President Obama took office.

The Thursday dinner was sponsored by the Democratic National Committee's LGBT Leadership Council, and according to several news reports, it raised about $1 million for the party.

But the protests continued. On Saturday, a group organized by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network marched to the White House to underscore its upset that the president has not exercised any executive authority to stop discharges under the Don't Ask-Don't Tell policy.

Roll Call, a newspaper that specializes in Congressional reporting, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the three openly Gay members of the House, and other top Democratic leaders met June 24 to take another look at what they could accomplish on LGBT issues this session. But the paper said they were "mum" on what decisions, if any, they made at that meeting.

Meanwhile, on June 25, Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the proposed hate crimes bill that the administration "strongly supports" the legislation.

© Keen News Service 2009

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