June 23, 2011 at 10:50 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Obama asserts marriage issue should be left to states

President Obama (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

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.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Eugene Lovendusky

    Thank you for being present at the Queer Rising/GetEQUAL demonstration this evening.

  • I was there last night. Obama didn’t say marriage should be left to the states. He says what you quoted in your article. Saying that progress in New York is good is NOT the same thing as saying marriage should be left to the states.

  • Traditionalist

    The Gaga Lady claims that kids are born with a sexual orientation. That claim is utterly false. The Amerfican Psychological Association represents the researchers and scientists in the science of psychology. Their statement on this question virtually rules out any possibility that sexual orientation is innate. Go to http://WWW.APA.ORG and search for “sexual orientation causes.” See for yourself what the experts have to say.

  • blue-heron

    “If I am not in the Whitehouse in 2012 who do you think will be addressing Gay Issues?…A Republican?” is what Obama should be saying repeatedly.

    “If I Had Not Been elected President in 2010, just how much do you think would have been accomplished on behalf of Gays?” is another point to be made.

    Any Republican Candidate, no matter how “Tolerant” or “Supportive” they may attempt to paint themselves during the campaigns, will allow the GOP to dictate that they must legislate to the Far Right. Merely look at history.

  • Ed Taylor

    I am tired of my campaign donations & votes being taken for granted. I will not make anymore campaign donations until the party takes decisive action & passes gay marriage.
    We have seen Obama use executive orders for some tawdry topics. If he cannot offer the leadership to get gay marriage passed through congress, then I expect an executive order.
    Not another penny until this is done.

    • laurelboy2

      Ed, executive orders apply only to Executive Branch operating procedures. The president is precluded from implmenting nationwide equal marriage rights by executive order.

  • It’s worth noting that despite GENDA also pending right now in NY and ENDA still a hot federal policy issue, Obama didn’t bother to address the reality that LGBT’s can still be fired from our jobs just for being gay in 29 states and for being trans in 36. In this economy that’s unconscionable, and it demonstrates a detachment and disengagement from the real economic and quality-of-life issues faced by the majority of LGBT Americans that’s at best concerning and at worst deeply worrying to average lower and middle class LGBT working families .

    When you add in the fact that Obama couldn’t even bring himself to mention workplace rights in his Pride proclamation this year, unlike last year’s, I think it’s obvious that once again Obama is apologizing for Democrats screwing over the poor and working class in the 111th Congress by pandering to the concerns of the uber-wealthy. It didn’t work last year and it’s not going to work this time either. It’s time for this guy to step outside of the DC bubble and address the issues the majority of this community care most, employment and jobs, just as in the straight community, about rather than focusing solely on the concerns of the wealthiest 1%.

  • Dottie Laird

    Leaving this to the states is a formula for failure. How many states already have constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and how many more are on the ballots in states across the country for 2012? More than half. Obama is really “punting” on this issue and still expecting his “fans” will contribute huge sums of money so we can go around in circles for the next four years, with a hat tip here and a mention there.

  • laurelboy2

    What’s wrong with civil unions anyway? All “marriages” are essentially civil unions, but with a church or religious twist. Hang it up and move to the next issue. Civil unions are fine.

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