President Obama pledged at this year’s White House Pride reception that he’ll continue to be an advocate for the LGBT community for as long as he’s in the White House, calling on attendees to dream big and “as openly as you want.”
“And as long as I have the privilege of being your president, I promise you, you won’t just have a friend in the White House, you will have a fellow advocate — for an America where no matter what you look like or where you come from or who you love, you can dream big dreams and dream as openly as you want,” Obama said.
The reception comes near the conclusion of Obama’s first term — and he wasn’t shy about touting his pro-LGBT achievements over the past three-a-half years, including repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and dropping defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court. Repealing the military’s gay ban got the most applause from the audience; the runner up was dropping defense of DOMA in court.
One other significant action by Obama was also included in his remarks: his recent endorsement of marriage equality.
“And Americans may be still evolving when it comes to marriage equality — but as I’ve indicated personally, Michelle and I have made up our minds on this issue,” Obama said.
An estimated 500 people came to the event, which took place in the East Room of the White House. A military band welcomed guests. Attendees munched on hors d’oeuvres served on tables adorned with red and pink roses.
Those who came largely consisted of LGBT advocates from around the country and LGBT people who held important roles in the federal government. Among the attendees were openly gay members of the Obama administration, including Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, chair of the Export-Import Bank Fred Hochberg and chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Nancy Sutley. Also on hand: Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California; gay actor Matt Bomer; and gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts.
Obama noted that his administration has seen many achievements on LGBT rights as he encouraged attendees to continue pressing forward
“After decades of inaction and indifference, you have every reason and right to push, loudly and forcefully, for equality,” Obama said. “But three years ago, I also promised you this: I said that even if it took more time than we would like, we would see progress, we would see success, we would see real and lasting change. And together, that’s what we’re witnessing.”
Another success that Obama mentioned was the lifting of the HIV travel ban. The president acknowledged this action has enabled D.C. to host the International AIDS Conference in July — marking the first time the United States has hosted the conference since 1990.
While touting his accomplishments, Obama said “we’ve got more to do” and identified two LGBT issues that he said still need to be addressed further: passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and bullying in schools.
“Americans may feel more comfortable bringing their partners to the office barbecue, but we’re still waiting for a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Obama said. “Congress needs to pass that legislation, so that no American is ever fired simply for being gay or transgender.”
The reception marks the fourth time that Obama has hosted a Pride reception at the White House. In each of the three previous years of his administration, the president has held a reception to commemorate June as Pride month.
This year’s Pride reception marks the first time openly gay service members participated while in uniform. A handful wearing uniforms from the various military branches could be seen mingling in the crowd, although they declined to talk to reporters during the event.
Josh Seefried, co-director of OutServe, was among the active duty service members who participated and said afterward he was proud to attend.
“I was incredibly proud to be there not only with the people we worked side by side with to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ but for the first time with my military peers as well,” Seefried said. “It was surreal.The president’s speech showed leadership from the top and I’m proud to call him my commander-in-chief.”
Numerous attendees told the Washington Blade at the event they were thrilled to receive invitations and show their support for Obama as Election Day approaches.
Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, said it’s important for the LGBT community to work to re-elect Obama after he took a political risk by coming out for marriage equality.
“I think it’s interesting that’s he taken such a major chance in support for this community, and I hope this community answers that challenge,” Segal said.
Mary Burns, executive director of the Indianapolis, Ind., based Indiana Youth Group, said she was “ecstatic” to attend the reception and doesn’t know anyone else who’s been invited to the White House.
“Just because we got invited, we’re celebrities in Indianapolis,” Burns said. “It’s very significant to us. We’re fighting a constitutional amendment [against marriage equality] in Indiana, and so the fact that we can come to the White House for a reception just says that the government isn’t all against us.”
Attendees at the event universally said they don’t believe presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would host a similar Pride event if he’s elected to the White House.
Michael Rogers, a gay D.C. activist and another attendee at the reception, said he doubts there would be any LGBT advances under a Romney administration.
“He’s so bound to the right-wing, especially in a first term that you just won’t see anything,” Rogers said. “You’ll see his social policy pushed off on some right-winger and [Romney will] care about destroying the economy. What they want to create is apartheid; they want to hold all the money for the rich, white people when more and more the country is becoming people of color and more diversity.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the members of Congress who was in attendance, expressed satisfaction with Obama’s inclusion of marriage equality in his speech — but was particularly happy Obama mentioned a trans-inclusive ENDA in his remarks.
“A few years ago, there was a major rift in the Democratic caucus, and in the gay community,” Nadler said. “When we put a bill on the floor for ENDA, it was not inclusive, and you wouldn’t do that today. Compare that a few years ago to today, when the president specifically mentioned an inclusive ENDA, and the president specifically comes out in favor of repealing DOMA and in favor of marriage equality. That’s tremendous change.”
Some LGBT advocates used the occasion of the White House Pride reception to press Obama to take administrative action against workplace discrimination against LGBT people.
Jacob Tobia, a gay 20-year-old student from Duke University, sought to deliver a letter to Obama calling on him to issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In April, the White House announced it wouldn’t issue such a directive at this time, but advocates have continued to press the administration.
Tobia, director of LGBTQ Policy for Duke student government, said he spoke briefly with the president following his remarks, but the message was taken by an aide.
“I don’t know if it’ll actually get to the president; I hope it will,” Tobia said. “But I shook his hand and got to say, ‘Mr. President, I wrote you a letter about the executive order, and I hope you’ll get a chance to read it.’ He said, ‘OK.’”
Tobia said he feels the executive order would help him personally because he resides in a state with no law protecting LGBT people against discrimination.
“It’s a very good possibility that I could be working in my home state and someone could give me my two weeks and say, ‘You’re fired,’ because I’m gay,” Tobia said. “With the job market the way it is, it’s really scary that I could be fired from my job just for being gay.”
The reception took place on the same day that Obama issued an executive order along the lines of the DREAM Act to protect young, undocumented immigrants pursuing college education or military service from deportation. According to the Associated Press, a few hundred young people rallied before the White House in support of the move before the reception started.