President Obama denounced GOP presidential candidates on Saturday for not speaking out against the booing of a gay soldier who asked a question on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during a recent debate.
Obama made the remarks during his keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign’s 15th annual dinner at the Washington Convention Center in D.C. before an estimated audience of 3,000 people.
In one notable portion of the speech, Obama took aim at Republican presidential hopefuls for not speaking out during a Sept. 22 debate against the booing of a gay soldier who asked a question about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” via video from Iraq.
“We don’t believe in the kind of smallness that says it’s OK for a stage full of political leaders — one of whom could end up being the President of the United States — being silent when an American soldier is booed,” Obama said. “You want to be commander-in-chief? You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States — even when it’s not politically convenient.”
Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the National Log Cabin Republicans, took exception after the speech to Obama’s criticism of Republican presidential candidates.
“President Obama’s focus on the booing at the latest GOP debate underscored his focus on politics over policy in his speech,” Berle said. “Such actions were quickly rebuked by Governors Huntsman and Johnson, after the debate, which was appropriate. His speech last night, much like his tenure as President, was more cheap shots and politics than substance on policy.”
The speech before HRC supporters could arguably be seen as a stump speech before the LGBT community as the Obama gears up his 2012 re-election campaign.
Obama enumerated five accomplishments he achieved for LGBT people in the first two-and-a-half years of his administration: passage of hate crimes protections legislation; issuing an order assuring hospital visitation rights for gay couples; lifting the HIV travel ban; repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; and declaring that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
Obama gave particular emphasis during his address to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was lifted from the books on Sept. 20 as the result of repeal legislation he signed in December.
“Many questioned whether we’d succeed in repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and, yes, it took two years to get the repeal through Congress.,” Obama said. “We had to hold a coalition together. We had to keep up the pressure. We took some flak along the way. But with the help of HRC, we got it done. And ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is history.”
Obama continued, “All around the world, you’ve got gays and lesbians who are serving, and the only difference is now they can put up a family photo. No one has to live a lie to serve the country they love.”
The audience warmly greeted Obama with cheers and applause. Attendees gave the president a standing ovation at least three times, including during his mention of bringing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to an end.
At one point, an audience member shouted to Obama, “Fired up!” The president immediately replied, “I’m fired up, too,” and continued his address.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, had particular praise for Obama while introducing the president and said his organization has accomplished “more in the last two years” than the previous seven.
“We must stand with those who have a history of standing with us and that includes Barack Obama,” Solmonese said. “No president has done more to improve the lives of LGBT people than Barack Obama.”
Some advocates were hoping that Obama would take the opportunity of speaking before an LGBT audience to endorse marriage equality.
Since last year, Obama has suggested he evolve to support same-sex marriage, although he hasn’t yet endorsed marriage rights for gay couples. The president offered no such support during his address.
John Aravosis, the gay editor of AMERICAblog, said Obama gave ”the speech we expected, not the speech we deserved.”
“It was a safe speech, an election speech really,” Aravosis said. “He rightfully listed a number of excellent accomplishments, with the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal at the lead. But his term isn’t over, so what’s next? Marriage? An executive order on ENDA? … The president gave a good speech, but it could have been great.”
Obama also faced calls to publicly come out against anti-gay marriage initiatives that will be on the ballot next year in Minnesota and North Carolina. During his speech, the president didn’t explicitly mention these measures, but spoke out against efforts to enshrine discrimination in state laws and constitutions.
“There are those who don’t want to just stand in our way but want to turn the clock back; who want to return to the days when gay people couldn’t serve their country openly; who reject the progress that we’ve made; who, as we speak, are looking to enshrine discrimination into state laws and constitutions — efforts that we’ve got to work hard to oppose, because that’s not what America should be about,” Obama said.
Among the explicit plans of action that Obama stated during his speech were outstanding promises from his 2008 campaign that he pledged to accomplish, including legislative repeal of DOMA and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“I need your help to fight for equality, to pass a repeal of DOMA, to pass an inclusive employment non-discrimination bill so that being gay is never again a fireable offense in America,” Obama said.
Attendees at the HRC dinner hailed Obama and said the lack of announced support for marriage equality during his address isn’t as significant as other aspects of his speech or his accomplishments for LGBT people.
Gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) said Obama described LGBT issues during his address with an authenticity that “really is breathtaking.”
“He is singularly the most important president we’ve ever had when it comes to the advancement of rights for the LGBT community,” Catania said. “And his remarks here are so authentic. I believe who we saw is the real Barack Obama — someone who knows the importance of equality.”
On Obama’s lack of support for marriage equality, Catania said, “I hope that as we go forward, he find it in his next term in his capacity to openly support marriage equality — not just drop the defense of DOMA. But this is not the time to be diminishing his remarks. What he has done is nothing short of breathtaking.”
Mike Manning, a bisexual cast member of MTV’s “Real World D.C.” in 2009, said he heard exactly what he wanted to hear from Obama and had an exchange with the president after the speech.
“I don’t get star-struck with celebrities, but with Obama, of course, I did,” Manning said. “The only thing I could think to say to Obama was ‘Hey Obama, you’re awesome. He said, ‘Thank you. You’re awesome.’ So now I can die happy. The President of the United States said that I was awesome.”
On Obama’s position on marriage, Manning said, “I like the way that he’s letting the nation evolve with him on his views. My opinion is that Obama has always been supportive of same-sex marriage, but the fact that he is letting the nation evolve with him is very smart.”
Manning continued, “The way Obama handles things, he has a process for everything, and he’s very smart at planning things out. Like for his repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ he didn’t just sign an executive order, he actually took the time to get people on his side, and I think that’s what he’s doing right now with marriage equality.”
Bil Browning, the gay founder and editor-in-chief of the Bilerico Project, was less impressed with the president and wanted to hear more during his remarks.
“It effectively listed all of his accomplishments, but I found it a little lackluster and was hoping for less of a campaign speech and more for a celebration or an acknowledgment of how far he’d exactly come on our issues,” Browning said.
Browning said he’d like to see Obama publicly support marriage equality, but acknowledged he doesn’t know “if coming to a constituent dinner is the proper place to announce a big change policy, that he’s changed his position on marriage.”
Other notable attendees at the HRC dinner were D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and former second lady Tipper Gore. Gay administration officials John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director, and Fred Hocherg, head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank were also there. Lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who recently launched a campaign for a U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made separate addresses during the dinner.
No protesters were seen outside the Washington Convention Center prior to the HRC dinner. Demonstrators often protest Obama at the LGBT events in which he participates for his lack of support of marriage equality and HRC for allegedly being an elitist organization.
Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEQUAL, said protesting the HRC dinner “wasn’t a priority and didn’t seem strategic.”
“We’re focused on building a grassroots movement that can demand full federal equality for LGBT Americans — and with limited resources, we have to be discerning about how to direct the energy of GetEQUAL’s organizers,” Cronk said. “Since we decided that protesting at the event wouldn’t actually help us build that uncompromising and unrelenting movement, we’re staying focused on where we can have an impact.”
UPDATE: This post has been edited.