By Chuck Colbert and Lisa Keen
WASHINGTON, DC – The content of President Barack Obama’s speech to an audience of LGBT supporters on the eve of the 2009 March on Washington offered nothing new. He reiterated his promises to the community, said he was “with” the community “in the fight” for equality, but offered no timetable. And the roar of approval from the standing-room-only audience at the Washington Convention Center Saturday night was, at times, deafening -just as it was in June, when Obama greeted gay leaders at the White House.
The 3,000 people gathered for the Human Rights Campaign’s annual $250-a-plate National Dinner interrupted the president’s speech 35 times with loud and sustained applause, including several standing ovations. But comments from attendees following the speech, as well as from many people who watched the speech live on CSPAN Saturday night, suggest the community likes what it hears but still longs to see some action.
From his opening quip -saying, “It is a privilege to be here tonight, to open for Lady Gaga” â to his campaign-like rousing finish, President Obama delivered a message that was warmly received. That message, said Obama, was “simple: “I’m here with you in that fight” for equality.
The president seemed generally comfortable in front of the enormous LGBT audience, even though many news reports ahead of time suggested he might be facing a community that is impatient with the speed at which the administration has addressed its concerns.
But HRC President Joe Solmonese introduced the president with the declaration, “We’ve never had a stronger ally in the White House -never.” And the audience followed with a welcoming standing ovation that lasted well over a minute.
When a male audience member shouted out at the top of the speech, “I love you, Barack!” the president responded, saying, “I love you back” and the audience cheered wildly.
As he did in June, when he hosted a reception at the White House to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the president acknowledged again Saturday night that, “Many of you don’t believe progress has come fast enough.” But, he reiterated, “My commitment to you is unwavering.”
“It may be taking longer than you like,” said the president, “but do not doubt the direction we are headed and will reach.” And then he repeated another point made in June – that he expects that, by the end of his time in the White House, the LGBT community will have seen an administration that “put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians.”
The president offered blunt reiterations of his promises to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) ban on gays in the military and to seek passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
“I will end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – that is my commitment to you,” said the president.
But, he parsed his words carefully on equal rights in marriage, saying that he supports ensuring that “committed gay couples” have the “same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country.”
“I believe strongly in stopping laws designed to take rights away and passing laws that extend equal rights to gay couples,” said Obama, adding that he has “called on Congress to repeal” the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevents the federal government from treating any same-sex couple -in a marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership – from receiving the same rights as straight married couples.
The president made no comment on the Maine ballot initiative, which seeks to overturn a marriage equality law in that state.
Given the raucously positive response the HRC gathering delivered to the president during the speech, the reaction of individual attendees and observers was decidedly guarded.
David Wilson, a plaintiff in the landmark Goodridge marriage decision in Massachusetts and a member of HRC’s steering committee in New England, said he was impressed that Obama repeated his campaign promises at an event which was broadcast live nationwide on CSPAN. But he said he believes the community should “hold his feet to the fire” on those promises.
Adam Ellis, a gay man who was there with his parents from Atlanta said, the president’s speech was “just fluff … and he’s reading off a teleprompter, but that it is [the president’s] word and that means a lot.”
“It’s nice to know he is on my side and his intentions are in the right place,” added Ellis. “I know no one is perfect. I believe he sincerely has in mind and heart my best interests.”
People who viewed the speech on CSPAN weighed in on personal blogs and on blogs of various newspapers.
Joe Mirabella told the Seattle Post Intelligencer blog that he had hoped the president would put in a word against the Maine ballot measure.
“I want to be in love with Obama the way I was the night he was declared the winner,” wrote Mirabella. “Unfortunately, the President regurgitated the same flowery placating language filled with false hopes and promises.”
In the Chicago Sun Times, reader Ben Hecht blogged, “He talked to gays in June and said give him time; last night all he did was make a campaign speech and again say he needs time. But wait,” wrote Hecht, “he’s got majorities in the Senate and the House. What’s he afraid of?”
If there was anything new in the speech itself, it was the prominence President Obama gave to the fact that many in the LGBT community are parents. He said the community has been “leading by the force of the arguments you make, and by the power of the example that you set in your own lives – as parents and friends, as PTA members and church members, as advocates and leaders in your communities.” He mentioned or referred to parents at least six times, and ended his speech with a story about Jeanne Manford, the founder of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Manford chastised a police officer who called her following her son’s arrest during a gay rights protest in the early 1970s, to tell her that her son is a “homosexual.” Manford told the officer that she knew that and shot back, “Why are you bothering him?”
Obama also made clear he would stand by any of his openly gay nominees who might be opposed simply for being gay. It was an apparent reference to Education Department nominee Kevin Jennings and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission nominee Chai Feldblum, who have recently been subject to opposition in the right-wing press.
“If any of my nominees are attacked not for what they believe but for who they are,” said Obama, “I will not waiver in my support, because I will not waiver in my commitment to ending discrimination in all its forms.”
If there was one awkward moment, it came at the end of the speech. Although HRC President Solmonese took considerable time to introduce the president, neither he nor anyone else from the organization joined the president on stage after the speech to shake his hand and enable a polite departure from the podium. Instead, the president stood alone, quickly began looking solemn, and soon found his own way out, behind a screen.
Meanwhile, a number of people in the media have begun blogging about the failure of the White House, thus far, to release a transcript of the text of the speech. The White House usually releases such transcripts within a few hours of their presentation.