President Barack Obama encouraged LGBT people to stand up for their rights and who they are during a White House reception Tuesday where attendees greeted him with cheers and applause.
At a celebration commemorating June as Pride month, Obama commended the invitees for their work and said their visit was a reminder that the change he called for during his presidential campaign “never comes — or at least never begins — in Washington.”
“It begins with acts of compassion — and sometimes defiance — across America,” he said. “And it begins when these impositions of conscience start opening hearts that had been closed, and when we finally see each other’s humanity, whatever our differences.”
Unlike many of Obama’s LGBT critics, people at the Pride reception welcomed the president warmly with thunderous applause and cheers as he and Vice President Joseph Biden entered the East Room, where the reception was held.
An estimated 300 people were expected to attend the event, although the actual number in attendance appeared closer to 100 as the event took place.
According to people familiar with Tuesday’s reception, invitees were restricted to the heads of state equality groups, U.S. House members, LGBT people with compelling stories and a contingent of LGBT youth. The leaders of national LGBT organizations didn’t receive invitations.
During the event, Obama addressed two changes his administration is making to afford more rights to LGBT people and their families. The newly announced changes cap off a series of pro-LGBT changes his administration has made in recent weeks in apparent connection with June as Pride month.
The first change, formally issued earlier in the day by the Labor Department, sets new rules to reinterpret the Family & Medical Leave Act to include same-sex couples and their children.
“And in an announcement today, the Department of Labor made clear that under the Family & Medical Leave Act, same-sex couples — as well as others raising children — are to be treated like the caretakers that they are,” Obama said.
According to a statement from the Labor Department, the Obama administration reinterpreted the definition of “son and daughter” under FMLA to extend family leave rights to any worker who cares for a child, including the same-sex partner of a biological parent.
FMLA, enacted in 1993, allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to care for loved ones, or themselves, and allows employees to take time off from work for the adoption or the birth of a child.
Obama also touted recent actions by the Department of Health & Human Services following through on an April hospital memorandum. Obama’s order directed HHS to work on implementing regulations in which hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding must allow same-sex partners to have hospital visitation rights and the ability to make emergency medical decisions for each other.
The president said Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday sent a letter asking hospitals “to adopt these changes now — even before the rule takes effect.”
Following the White House Pride reception, the Department of Health & Human Services made public the letter that Sebelius sent to hospitals with the request for “voluntary support” until new regulations are published.
“Your actions could spare many patients the pain of being separated from a loved one during an admission to a hospital — often one of the most anxious times in their lives,” Sebelius wrote.
In addition to announcing new administrative changes, the president also renewed his call for legislative changes to eliminate discrimination against LGBT people.
Obama reiterated his call to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, citing his belief that LGBT couples “deserve the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country.” He also called on Congress to approve a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“No one in America should be fired because they’re gay,” Obama said. “It’s not right, it’s not who we are as Americans, and we are going to put a stop to it.”
Obama also called for an end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” citing recent congressional votes to repeal the statute and an upcoming vote in the full Senate on the defense budget bill to which repeal language is attached.
“We have never been closer to ending this discriminatory policy,” Obama said. “And I’m going to keep on fighting until that bill is on my desk and I can sign it.”
The president said the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal compromise Congress pushed forward is the best way to approach an end to the law because the measure allows the Pentagon to complete its review by the end of this year.
Obama said the review process is important not only to have the votes for passage in Congress, but to ensure “the change is accepted and implemented effectively.”
A number of high-profile LGBT Americans were at the reception, including some who’ve recently made headlines.
Notables included Constance McMillan, the lesbian high school student from Aberdeen, Miss. who was barred from taking her girlfriend to prom; Janice Langbehn, a lesbian whose inability to see her dying partner in the hospital prompted Obama to issue the hospital memorandum; and Chely Wright, the country music singer who recently came out as lesbian and performed earlier this month at Capital Pride.
Also in attendance were Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), as well as gay Reps. Jared Polis (D-Pa.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).
Other attendees were high-ranking members of the Obama administration, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Tina Tchen, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Openly gay administration officials at the event included John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; Fred Hochberg, president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank; Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Brian Bond, LGBT liaison for the White House.
Tuesday’s reception capped a series of other events this week in various executive departments celebrating June as Pride month. These celebrations featured remarks from high-profile officials in the Obama administration, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
At the White House reception, the contingent of LGBT youth received special attention from Obama for what he said was bravely standing up for themselves and seeking visibility.
“It’s not easy standing up all the time and being who you are,” he said. ”But they’re showing us the way forward. These young people are helping to build a more perfect union, a nation where all of us are equal; each of us is free to pursue our own versions of happiness.”
Obama said the young LGBT people at the White House reception served as a reminder that “we all have an obligation to ensure that no young person is ever made to feel worthless or alone — ever.”
Among the LGBT youth present at the White House reception was Morgan Keenan, an advisor for an LGBT youth group based in St. Louis, Mo. known as Growing American Youth.
Keenan said prior to the president’s remarks, Obama met with 15 or 16 young people who identified as LGBT — including two young people who came as part of Keenan’s delegation from St. Louis.
“For the youth that I brought, it’s going to change their world,” Keenan said. “They’re going to come out of there different than when they went in, but I hope that he listens to them.”
People at the event — many of whom were donors and contributors to the Democratic Party — largely had kind words about Obama and the progress his administration has made on LGBT issues.
Estevan Garcia, a gay pediatrician and New York resident, said he came to the reception representing the Family Equality Council, a national LGBT family organization to which he noted he often donates.
Garcia said family issues are particularly important to him and his partner because he’s married and has three children. He described the president’s remarks during the reception as “right on.”
“We’re big supporters and have been for a while,” Garcia said. “We felt that he really is working behind the scenes a little bit to push our causes.”
Garcia said the advancement of LGBT issues is “a slow process” and he’s willing to give Obama “the benefit of a doubt” on the matter.
Similarly appreciative of Obama’s efforts was George Meldrum, a gay Democratic lobbyist and activist from Wilmington, Del.
“I like the direction he’s going,” Meldrum said. “I understand the nature of politics and I’m very patient, partly because of the nature of the work that I do. Politics is all about compromise.”
Meldrum, 62, commended Obama for making pro-LGBT changes through administrative action, which he said enables the president to move forward without going through the legislative system, where he might not find success.
“He’s saying the right things and I think he’s doing the right things,” Meldrum said. “His plate is very full. We’re one of the things on that plate.”
But one reception attendee who was critical of the Obama administration’s progress was Alexandra Beninda, a transgender D.C. resident and Democratic activist.
Beninda said the president’s remarks during the reception — as they were during his campaign — were “very hopeful and encouraging and all that,” but she’s seeking more.
“I do get feeling that a lot more could be done and wonder what direction we can point them in terms of trying to get things done,” she said.
Citing concern about the failure so far to pass ENDA, Beninda said current law is creating an environment where “people are getting fired from their jobs and being denied jobs on a daily basis.”
“Basically, what it comes down to is you have an administration and a Democratic Legislature that is allowing discrimination on a regular basis and not taking the right steps to do anything about it,” she said.
Beninda said she wants Obama to be “a lot more forceful” with Congress to prompt lawmakers to action on ENDA and other pro-LGBT bills.