September 28, 2011 at 10:22 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
High hopes for Obama’s speech to HRC

President Obama (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For the second time in three years, President Obama is the scheduled keynote speaker at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner.

Some LGBT rights supporters are hoping that Obama will take advantage of the opportunity to endorse marriage equality and to denounce initiatives that would ban marriage rights for same-sex couples in Minnesota and North Carolina.

Obama is scheduled to keynote HRC’s 15th annual National Dinner in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. About 3,000 attendees are expected for the event, which will take place at the Washington Convention Center.

Obama has suggested since last year that his views could “evolve” to support same-sex marriage, but he hasn’t yet endorsed marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

John Aravosis, the gay editor of AMERICAblog, said the HRC speech is an opportunity for Obama to complete his evolution.

“I want to hear him say that he is once again for marriage equality,” Aravosis said. “And I think it would be big news, and it would help us politically and legally, if he does. If he doesn’t, then it will be just another HRC dinner where important people come to tell us nothing new.”

In 1996, Obama, during his bid to become an Illinois state senator, said in a questionnaire response to the Windy City Times, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

Obama in June faced pressure to come out for same-sex marriage during an LGBT fundraiser in New York City as marriage legislation was making its way through the New York Legislature. The president didn’t explicitly endorse marriage equality at the time and instead said states such as New York should decide the marriage issue for themselves.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said Obama should recommit to backing marriage equality even before his speech on Saturday.

“President Obama should not wait for a dinner to heed Freedom to Marry’s call — joined by more than 117,000 Americans on our ‘Say I Do’ Open Letter — to speak out clearly and authentically in support of the freedom to marry,” Wolfson said.

The “Say I Do” letter is an online open letter from Freedom to Marry to President Obama urging him to endorse same-sex marriage. Among the celebrity signers are lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and her spouse Portia; gay singer Rufus Wainwright; straight actress Anne Hathaway; and gay media mogul David Geffen.

Wolfson added that Obama should endorse same-sex marriage in some capacity before a non-gay audience to demonstrate the importance of allowing gay couples to marry.

“I’d like to see the president bring his message of support for the freedom to marry to a non-gay audience, or lay it out in an interview with a national journalist, so that Americans can hear him talk about gay families, why marriage matters, and the case for opening their hearts to the values of fairness and treating others as they would want to be treated,” Wolfson said.

While Obama doesn’t support same-sex marriage, his administration has taken steps to extend benefits to same-sex couples and put them on more equal footing with married straight couples.

Obama has called for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. In February, after initially defending the anti-gay law against litigation, Obama declared the law unconstitutional and said his administration would no longer defend it in court.

What Obama will ultimately say during his speech remains to be seen. The president is likely to tout the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which came to an end on Sept. 20 as a result of legislation he signed in December. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said he didn’t have a preview of the president’s remarks.

It isn’t the first time Obama — or a sitting U.S. president — has addressed the HRC dinner. Obama previously spoke at the dinner in 2009. In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton gave the keynote address.

In 2009, Obama recommitted to repealing the military’s gay ban as he declared, “I will end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Obama has since fulfilled that promise.

But also in 2009, Obama faced pressure during his HRC speech at that time to come out against a referendum in Maine to rescind a law enabling same-sex couples to marry. But Obama didn’t explicitly mention the initiative in his address. The referendum ultimately succeeded in November 2009, taking marriage rights away from gay couples there.

In addition to coming out for marriage equality, some advocates see the HRC speech as an opportunity for Obama to denounce initiatives set for the ballot next year. Both North Carolina and Minnesota are set to vote on amendments that would ban marriage rights for same-sex couples. The North Carolina initiative will come before voters in May and the Minnesota initiative will come before voters in November 2012.

In both places, state law already prohibits same-sex couples from marrying. But the proposed amendment would prevent the state legislatures from legalizing marriage equality at a later time or state courts from ruling in favor of marriage equality.

Wolfson said Obama should take every chance he has, including the HRC speech, to oppose anti-gay attacks such as those underway in Minnesota and North Carolina.

“And he should underscore at every opportunity, in the clearest terms, the moral urgency of voting ‘no’ on anti-gay ballot measures such as North Carolina’s and Minnesota’s,” Wolfson said.

LGBT advocates on the ground in North Carolina and Minnesota have mixed views on whether public opposition from Obama would be beneficial to campaigns against the amendments in those states.

Alex Miller, interim executive director of Equality North Carolina, said Obama should speak out against the North Carolina amendment during his speech because a lot of people from the Tar Heel State will attend the dinner.

“A lot of people feel very invested in this presidency, and gave a lot to make it happen,” Miller said. “I think it’s imperative that the president speak out and defend folks in North Carolina from the amendment that would do so much harm not only to LGBT North Carolinians, but to all unmarried couples, and to everybody that will be exposed to the harsh and ugly rhetoric that’s about to be broadcast across the state from the other side.”

Miller said he doesn’t believe opposition from Obama on its own would be enough to defeat the amendment, but said opposition would be “showing the leadership that we all want from him on the issue.”

Richard Carlbom, who started this week as campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, said he isn’t concerned about whether Obama will speak out against the amendment.

“I’d never recommend what the president should or should not say to a crowd like the HRC dinner,” Carlbom said. “I think President Obama has been pretty clear where he stands, and we’re focused on winning this thing in Minnesota, so I’m not concerned about what he’s going to say on Saturday or what he won’t say.”

Asked whether he wants Obama to speak out at some point against the measure, Carlbom replied, “This is my second day on the job. Obviously, we want everybody to speak out against this amendment, but there’s a lot of work to do on the ground here in Minnesota, and that’s what I remain focused on right now.”

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

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