NEW YORK CITY — President Obama reiterated on Thursday that the marriage issue should be left to the states during an LGBT fundraiser in New York City that took place amid increasing pressure for him to endorse marriage rights for gay couples.
During his remarks, Obama noted legislation is pending before the New York State Legislature that would legalize same-sex marriage in the nation’s third-largest state, but offered no explicit remarks either for or against the bill.
Obama drew on his opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage, in his remarks on the New York marriage bill and leaving the issue to the states. The president has called for legislative repeal of DOMA and, in February, announced the law was unconstitutional and his administration would no longer defend it in court.
“Part of the reason that DOMA doesn’t make sense is that traditionally marriage has been decided by the states,” Obama said. “I understand there is a little debate going on here in New York about whether to join five other states and D.C. in allowing civil marriage for gay couples. I want to say that under the leadership of Governor [Andrew] Cuomo, with the support of Democrats and Republicans, New York is doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do. There’s a debate; there’s deliberation about what it means here in New York to treat people fairly in the eyes of the law.”
Obama’s remarks that relationship recognition should be left to the states emphasizes a different note of what he’s already said on the issue, but slightly deters from the White House and president’s greater emphasis in recent months on how the president could evolve to support same-sex marriage.
About 600 donors, mostly male, sat at round tables in a large ballroom for the $1,250-a-plate dinner at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in New York. Gay actor Neil Patrick Harris and Capt. Jonathan Hopkins, a West Point graduate who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” introduced Obama at the start of the event.
Advocates had been hoping that Obama, who has previously suggested his position could evolve on same-sex marriage, would come out for gay nuptials and endorse the New York marriage bill during the fundraiser. But before the fundraiser, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during a press gaggle that Obama wouldn’t issue such an endorsement during the speech.
At an earlier point in his remarks, while beginning to list his achievements for the LGBT community, Obama was interrupted by hecklers who shouted, “Marriage! Marriage!” in an apparent attempt to get the president on board with marriage equality.
The president replied, “I heard that. Believe it or not I anticipated that.” Despite the heckling, no attendees were escorted out of the event.
Obama continued listing his accomplishments for the LGBT community and said he would continue to fight against discrimination against LGBT people, recalling that legislative passage of a hate crimes protections and legislation allowing for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal occurred under his watch.
“I believed that discrimination because of somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity ran counter to who we are as a people, and it’s a violation of the basic tenets on which this nation was founded,” Obama said. “I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country.”
The president made a reference to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” — in addition to often dismissed speculation that he wasn’t in fact born in the United States — during his recollection of what he’s done for the LGBT community, eliciting laughter and applause from the audience.
“Ever since I entered into public life, ever since I have a memory about what my mother taught me, and my grandparents taught me, I believed that discriminating against people was wrong,” Obama said. “I had no choice. I was born that way — In Hawaii.”
Josh Cohen, a gay New York City-based activist who attended the fundraiser, said the two most important parts of Obama’s speech were his assertion that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as opposite-sex couples and his stated empathy over people’s frustration with the slow pace of progress.
“When people in the audience hollered for an explicit answer on the M-word question, [Obama] didn’t blame them for doing so,” Cohen said. “He expressed understanding for why people holler and keep the pressure up. He even understood the need for people to holler and keep the pressure up on him.”
Cohen said he’d like the president to move faster on LGBT rights, but added, “given the tools he has to work with, and all the constituencies he needs to balance to stay in office, he’s moving along at an acceptable pace.”
Prior to the fundraiser, grassroots LGBT groups demonstrated outside the hotel. Around 20 activists affiliated with Queer Rising and GetEQUAL waived and banners and shouted chants urging President Obama to endorse marriage equality.
Some protesters held a sign listing a number of prominent Republicans who support same-sex marriage — including former Vice President Dick Cheney, former first lady Laura Bush and gay former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman — while noting Obama has yet to do the same.
The protesters shouted the now familiar GetEQUAL refrain, “I am … somebody … and I deserve … full equality.” They later chanted, “What do you we want? Marriage equality! When do we want it? Now!”
Dan Fotou, eastern regional field director for GetEQUAL, said the demonstration was held because the president came to an LGBT fundraiser in New York amid the marriage equality battle in the state while remaining opposed to same-sex marriage.
“We’re here to remind him that his position on marriage equality is unacceptable,” Fotou said. “He’s got other Republicans, prominent Republicans, who are for marriage equality — who’ve never promised equality, who’ve never promised to be our ‘fierce advocate’ — they’ve come out for marriage equality.”
Eugene Lovendusky, secretary of Queer Rising, also said he wanted to protest because of Obama’s lack of support for marriage equality amid the push for marriage legislation in New York.
“Fifty-eight percent of New York are in favor of marriage equality and Obama is staying silent, but has no problem taking money from the gays here, though, so that’s why we’re here,” Lovendusky said.
Fotou said Obama should come out for same-sex marriage because his leadership position means his support for marriage equality would lead to greater protections for the LGBT community.
“When we have governmental support — hate crimes, suicides, LGBT homelessness — all the things that are really part of our community that are harmful — it has a tendency to take the sting out of that,” Fotou said. “The more equal we become, the more visible we become in society, the less harm we are facing. So that, I think, is a really important thing that I think Obama can recognize in his position to evolving to support for marriage equality.”
NOTE: This post has been updated.