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Category: Politics, LGBT

Reality and Hope at the White House

| July 8, 2009

President Obama addressed the Gay Pride Month reception at the White House on May 29. Photo: Alix Ritchie

At a recent White House reception, the author learned, on LBGT issues, the difference between having a leader or an ally in residence.

Last week President Obama hosted a reception in the White House in honor of Gay Pride Month and the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. It’s an amazing leap from Christopher Street to the East Room, and all the attendees were ready to celebrate the distance traveled. And they certainly wanted to celebrate a president who has both promised and embodied change. 

But that celebratory spirit was tempered with the message that change is not always easy, especially when it comes to institutionalized discrimination based on gender affinity, and it was dampened by the demeaning bigotry contained in a brief filed only two weeks ago in a case in California by Obama’s Department of Justice in defense of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents gay married couples from federal recognition and benefits).

While some attendees thought that perhaps the President might take this occasion to make an announcement of some concrete step, such was not the case. He did however, cover some of the positive steps that have been accomplished to date, reiterated his support for repealing DOMA and DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) and emphasized that he had asked Pentagon officials to come up with a way to make the repeal of DADT work.

What he did not do is commit to preventing the imminent discharge of current members of the military. Nor did he distance himself from the language used by the DOJ in the California DOMA case. Indeed, regarding the latter, I had a chance to ask the President if he would help to assure that future DOJ briefs would not include such unnecessarily insulting language. I had hoped that, even though he has taken the position that he has to defend the law, he might give some indication that the defense didn’t have to go to such lengths; on the contrary, he defended the language in the DOJ brief. I want to characterize this as a crushing disappointment, but in truth I think it was just a reminder of harsh reality.

Which brings me back to what in so many ways were the interwoven themes of this event: the mixture, intersection, conflict and combination of reality and hope. It seems clear that President Obama committed to being an ally and a friend to gay rights, but he will not be a leader. And that, in itself, is a message that gay rights activists need to hear: it will still be up to them to change minds and hearts, especially those of the legislators on Capitol Hill.

What is different is that now they can count on a White House that will support legislation removing some of the institutionalized injustices uniquely aimed at the LGBT community.

Standing with the President in the East Room of the White House is heady, exhilarating—and sobering: a symbol of how much has changed and how much has not, and how much work is yet to be done. The takeaway from a lovely summer afternoon in “the people’s house” was that we will have a friend there if—and that’s a real if—we have effective, proactive leadership that can make a legislative difference.

We are still a long way from full equality under the law. But it’s also still a long way from Christopher Street