By Lisa Keen
WASHINGTON, D.C. –
It was not exactly the same rousing, sustained cheer of last year that greeted President Barack Obama as he entered the East Room on the evening of June 22 for a reception in honor of LGBT Pride Month. There was an awkward quiet as he shook some hands near the stage before making his remarks, and several moments of silence when normally one might have expected the requisite applause.
But the several hundred people attending the White House LGBT Pride Month Reception were enthusiastic in their reception of the president.
President Obama welcomed a crowd that was said to include more grassroots activists and fewer entrenched leaders at the national level. (A request for the guest list was turned down, a routine occurrence, but will become public in 90 days.)
On hand was Roberta Achtenberg, one of the first openly gay appointees, from the Clinton administration. Also, there was country singer Chely Wright, who recently came out in conjunction with the release of her newest album and a memoir, “Like Me.”
From Michigan, Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh was in attendance, as well as Equality Michigan Executive Director Alicia Skillman, Affirmations CEO Leslie Thompson, and their guests.
Initially, President Obama read somewhat stiffly from prepared remarks, then grew more comfortable, talking about promises to the LGBT community which the administration has delivered upon.
He reminded his audience that, in that same room one year ago, he pledged that he would “not put aside matters of basic equality, and we haven’t.” The crowd did not cheer, and the president moved quickly on, noting that while his administration has a lot of work to do, it has made some progress.
Among the milestones of that progress, said Obama, was passage and enactment of the hate crimes law and a memorandum directing the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that all hospitals receiving Medicaid and Medicare enable LGBT patients to designate their partners and families for visitation privileges. The president said he directed HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to send a message to hospitals that day to begin complying with the request even before formal regulations had been adopted. A notice was sent out by HHS later that same day, announcing the proposed rules.
President Obama also pointed to a memorandum he initiated last June, directing federal agencies to extend “as many benefits as possible under the law” to gay federal employees with same-sex partners.
Obama reiterated some promises that he has not yet delivered on: passing “an inclusive non-discrimination act” to protect employees – a reiteration that drew a loud and enthusiastic cheer – as well as repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and ending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. On the latter point, the president defended his administration’s decision to enable the Pentagon to complete its implementation study before approval final repeal of the policy. He said that was “the only way to get this” repeal to work, given that the Pentagon is “in the midst of two wars.”
“The bottom line,” said the president, “is that we have never been closer to ending this discriminatory policy, and I’m going to keep on fighting till it’s on my desk and I sign it.”
Absent from the June 22 event were the three openly gay representatives. The president noted that Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) had to leave early. There was no mention of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). A spokesman for Frank did not respond by deadline as to why Rep. Frank was not at the event.
A list of “notable guests” obtained by a White House pool reporter did include Baldwin and Polis’ names but not Frank’s. Among the notable guests who did attend were Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, and Export-Import Bank leader Fred Hochberg.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also gave remarks on that same day at Washington, D.C.’s Loy Henderson Auditorium. “Here at the State Department, we will continue to advance a comprehensive human rights agenda that includes the elimination of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” she told the audience. “We are elevating our human rights dialogues with other governments and conducting public diplomacy to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.”