NEW YORK — President Obama stirred high-dollar LGBT donors at a Democratic National Committee gala in New York City on Tuesday by reminding them of the accomplishments over the course of his administration and saying more needs to be done.
Speaking onstage at Gotham Hall before an American flag, Obama received a prolonged standing ovation when he said he told his staff to prepare an executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.
“We don’t benefit as a country or an economy — businesses don’t benefit if they’re leaving talent off the field,” Obama said. “And that’s why I’ve directed my staff to prepare for my signature, an executive order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity…Because in the United States of America, who you are and who you love shouldn’t be a fireable offense.”
The White House announced Monday that Obama plans to sign the executive order. Although many questions remain about the planned directive, such as whether it’ll contain a religious exemption, Obama revealed virtually no details about the order in his remarks.
But Obama said efforts must continue to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would bar discrimination among public and private employers, not just federal contractors. The executive order he plans to sign doesn’t “reach everyone that needs to be reached,” Obama said.
“It would be better, by the way, if Congress passed a more comprehensive law that didn’t just cover federal contractors,” Obama said. “And we need to keep working on that, so don’t take the pressure off Congress.”
Commending the Senate for bipartisan passage last year of ENDA, Obama took a jab at the Republican-controlled House and said it “shockingly” hasn’t moved on the legislation, just as it hasn’t acted on so many other Senate-passed bills.
“This seems to be a pattern these days,” Obama said. “Everybody has just given up so much on Congress that we end up doing something through executive order. And that’s helpful, but it doesn’t reach everybody that needs to be reached. Congress needs to start working again, so let’s make sure that we keep the pressure up there.”
Recalling the history of ENDA, Obama observed Congress has been considering the legislation “for decades,” but has not yet passed the legislation, while in many states, it’s still legal for individuals to be fired for being LGBT.
“Every day, millions of Americans go to work knowing that they could lose their job, not because of anything they did, but because of who they are,” Obama said. “That is not right; it is wrong.”
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said Obama deserves praise for his vision on LGBT workplace discrimination. He wasn’t in attendance at the event, but listened to Obama’s remarks on the radio.
“Those were the strongest and most thorough remarks I’ve ever heard from President Obama in support of ENDA,” Almeida said. “The president very much deserved the strong applause he received when he discussed the upcoming executive order, and he was right to say that we must all keep the pressure on Congress.”
But Almeida added that Obama himself should take more action to guide ENDA toward passage, saying his voice would be helpful in building co-sponsors for the legislation.
“On that point, it would be great for the White House to lean on the eight holdout Democratic members of Congress and see if they can be persuaded to become ENDA sponsors this month before the president signs the executive order,” Almeida said.
Immediately after he came on stage to deliver his remarks, which lasted about 15 minutes, Obama embraced lesbian widow Edith Windsor and her attorney Roberta Kaplan, who introduced him and were responsible for the litigation that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act last year.
Following rulings from as many as 20 courts in favor of same-sex marriage after the historic decision last year against DOMA, Obama criticized the Republican Party for setting up the ballot measures that enacted many of the bans on marriage equality currently in place.
“Here’s a good bet: They’re not going to try the same strategy in 2014,” Obama said.
The president was well received by his audience. About 550 supporters attended the gala, according to a DNC official. The cost of tickets began at $1,200 and went up to $32,400, the official said.
Among the notables in attendance seen by the Blade were gay Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias, gay New York congressional candidate Sean Eldridge and lesbian public relations specialist Cathy Renna.
Obama also marveled at the progress on LGBT issues, ticking off accomplishments under his administration, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal; the lifting of the HIV travel ban; the institution of LGBT non-discrimination protections in health care thanks to Obamacare; and discontinued defense of DOMA in court.
“We’ve worked to address and prevent bullying, because it’s not enough to say it gets better,” Obama said. “We’ve got to make it better.”
Taking note of the news earlier in the day, Obama touted the U.S. Senate’s historic confirmation of two openly gay black nominees to the federal judiciary. At the same time, he criticized the Texas Republican Party for including as part of its platform an endorsement of “ex-gay” conversion therapy.
Saying he had recently seen the film version of “The Normal Heart” and afterward called director Ryan Murphy to tell him how much he admired the film, Obama said more work is necessary to combat HIV/AIDS, touting the National AIDS Strategy his administration developed during his first term.
“I know that many people in this room have photographs with smiling friends from days gone by, and a lot of those friends are gone, taken before their time — both because of a diseases and because there was a government that failed to recognize that disease in time,” Obama said. “And that can happen again if we’re not careful.”
Obama said the act of coming out for LGBT people is what has led to the significant progress on LGBT issues in recent years. The president thanked attendees for making America “more just, more compassionate.”
The gala took place days before a meeting is planned at the White House on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. between administration officials and LGBT advocates. An invitation to the meeting, obtained by the Washington Blade, says participants are set to discuss implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against the Defense of Marriage Act and the planned LGBT non-discrimination order, but no other information was given.
As Obama spoke inside Gotham Hall, protesters affiliated with Immigration Equality and the LGBT group GetEQUAL demonstrated on the streets outside the building, calling on Obama to take his executive authority further by stopping the deportations of undocumented immigrants, especially LGBT immigrants. Chanting and brandishing signs as they circled the street, they shouted, “Not one more! Not one more!”
A transgender woman named Roxanna, who’s from Honduras and is seeking asylum in the United States, said she was demonstrating because “deportations are not acceptable for our community.” Her remarks were translated by Immigration Equality’s Diego Ortiz.
“The reason we’re here today is to say that we cannot have one more LGBT deportation,” she said. “For transgender women like me, deportations can be a death sentence.”
The LGBT gala was one of three events that Obama attended in New York City. Prior to the DNC gala, Obama spoke at an event for the Senate Majority PAC, a “Super PAC” dedicated to securing Democratic victories, and after the event he was set to speak at a DNC roundtable at a private residence. According to pool reports, the last event took place at the home of Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor.
Concluding his remarks, Obama called on the LGBT community to expand its work to cover issues other than LGBT issues, such as poverty, equal pay and immigration.
“If you’ve experienced being on the outside, you’ve got to be one to bring more folks in even once you are inside,” Obama said. “That’s our task. That’s our job. That’s why we’re here tonight.”