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“Welcome to The White House,” said President Barack Obama to me and about 350 other activists at the Third Annual LGBT Pride Reception June 15. Those simple words opened a floodgate of emotions for me. Prior to that moment, the only other times I had been at The White House I was outside protesting, and here I was inside being welcomed by our nation’s leader.
“For every person who lost a loved one at the hand of hate, we ended a decade of delay and finally made the Matthew Shepard Act the law of the land,” he said, and I was thrown back into the moment in 1992 when I got the phone call telling me that Sue Pittman and Christine Puckett had been murdered by their homophobic neighbor. They had been my friends and fellow board members at Affirmations.
“For every American diagnosed with HIV who couldn’t get access to treatment, we put forward a National HIV/AIDS strategy – because who you are should never affect whether you get life-extending care,” said the President. I said a silent prayer for James Drain, my dear friend and co-worker who died of AIDS in 1994 just months before the release of protease inhibitors that could have saved his life. And I felt a wave of anger at the ghost of former President Ronald Reagan who had refused to even say the word AIDS for six years as the epidemic raged like wild fire.
“For every partner or spouse denied the chance to comfort a loved one in the hospital, to be by their side at their greatest hour of need, we said, enough. Hospitals that accept Medicare or Medicaid – and that is most of them – now have to treat LGBT patients just like any other patient,” said Obama. I wished I could share that moment with my friend, David. In 1998, I had held his hand through an excruciating funeral ceremony for his lifelong partner, a ceremony in which the family excluded him and refused to even mention him in the eulogy – as if the love of his life never existed. David died shortly thereafter, I believe of a broken heart.
“And, of course, last year we finally put an end to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – (applause) – so that nobody would ever have to ever again hide who they love in order to serve the country they love,” and my thoughts jumped to Ken Warnock who was the first person I ever met who was thrown out of the Navy for being gay. By all accounts an excellent sailor, Warnock had been subjected to a humiliating interrogation while serving on a ship overseas, something no American serviceperson will ever have to endure again.
“Now, we know we’ve got more to do. Americans may feel more comfortable bringing their partners to the office barbecue – (laughter) – but we’re still waiting for a fully inclusive employment non-discrimination act. (Applause.) Congress needs to pass that legislation, so that no American is ever fired simply for being gay or transgender,” said the President, and I gave a silent nod to Jim Domanski who was fired from his job at Hudson’s Department Store in the late 1980s because he is gay. Though painful and difficult for Jim, it turned out to be Hudson’s loss and our community’s gain as he went on to create Pronto! in Royal Oak, led the creation of Steppin’ Out’s AIDS Walk and so many other LGBT projects.
“I want to acknowledge all the young leaders here today who are making such a big difference in their classrooms and in their communities,” said Obama. At the reception after his speech I was able to thank Katy Butler in person who was there with her mother. Earlier this year, Butler, just 17, led a national campaign to get the rating agency to change the rating on “Bully” from R to PG13 so teenagers can see this important documentary.
“And as long as I have the privilege of being your President, I promise you, you won’t just have a friend in the White House, you will have a fellow advocate – (applause) – for an America where no matter what you look like or where you come from or who you love, you can dream big dreams and dream as openly as you want.”
Thank you Mr. President, on behalf of Sue, Chris, James, David, Ken, Jim, Katy and all LGBT people who now have reason to hope for a more inclusive America.