President Obama welcomed about 200 LGBT leaders from around the country, including three local activists, to the White House June 29 for a reception to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, during which the president reiterated his support for LGBT-rights issues.
Obama spoke to the crowd for about 15 minutes, encouraging LGBT and ally individuals to continue the fight that began in New York City 40 years ago the previous day, when hundreds of LGBT people fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, spurring what is considered the birth of the modern LGBT-rights movement.
Obama noted that current change can be fueled by reflecting on “the story of the Stonewall protests ... when a group of citizens — with few options and fewer supporters — decided they’d had enough and refused to accept a policy of wanton discrimination.”
“The riots at Stonewall gave way to protests, and protests gave way to a movement and the movement gave way to a transformation that continues to this day,” the president told the crowd. “It continues in your work and in your activism, in your fight to freely live your lives to the fullest.”
During the reception, Obama recognized longtime LGBT activist Frank Kameny, saying the community was “proud” of him and “grateful for [his] leadership.”
Last week, Kameny received a written apology from the Office of Personnel Management for his 1957 firing from his post as an astronomer with the federal government because of his sexual orientation and was also invited to be present when Obama signed a presidential memorandum granting some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
Kameny noted that as the president entered the room for the reception, he recognized him from the memorandum signing and greeted him by name, something Kameny never imagined would be possible in the early days of his activism.
“I’m on first-name terms with the president of the United States; I definitely never expected that to happen,” he said. “Forty-four years ago we picketed outside of the White House, never reasonably ever expecting to be inside in this kind of fashion, to be invited specifically on the same merits we picketed, as the gay community. To be invited in this formal sense is in my mind like a storybook ending. It’s a wonderful commentary on the progress we’re capable of making in this country.”
Kathy Padilla, a local transgender activist who attended the reception, said she was honored to be included.
“I really was a bit overwhelmed at being there,” she said. “I don’t think many transgender people have gotten an invitation to the White House.”
Mark Davis, president of local LGBT mental-health group Pink and Blues, called the reception “wonderful and beautiful” and shared Padilla’s sentiments of being overwhelmed by the surroundings.
“I felt like a kid in a candy shop,” Davis said. “I just couldn’t believe I was in the White House. I called a couple friends on my cell phone just to say I was calling from the White House.”
In his remarks, Obama acknowledged that many in the LGBT community and many present at the reception “don’t believe that progress has come fast enough,” but pledged to follow through on his promises of LGBT equality.
He referenced the extension of domestic-partner benefits to federal employees and went on to say he has encouraged Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriage that, according to the administration, prevented it from extending full health and other benefits to the same-sex partners of employees. The president drew backlash from the LGBT community after the Department of Justice released a brief in support of DOMA last month.
Obama noted during the reception that the DOJ has a commitment to uphold existing laws, but that it “in no way lessens [my] commitment to reversing this law.”
The president went on to restate his support for the passage of employment nondiscrimination and hate-crimes laws that are inclusive of the LGBT community, and for the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers, which he contended “weakens national security.”
Obama did not offer a timeline on when the community could expect any of these steps, but said he has instructed the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to “develop a plan for how to thoroughly implement a repeal” of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“We have made progress and we will make more,” the president said. “And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps. We’ve been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.”
Padilla said she was struck when the president told the crowd that it wasn’t his place to tell them to be patient.
“He’s encouraging people to help him make this change happen,” Padilla said. “I think we have to look back to what FDR once said, which is yes, we need folks to make this happen. The president said to keep pressure not just on the larger community but on him also to make it possible to do the things that we want to do.”
Davis noted that although the reception got little airtime on networks such as CNN, the president’s remarks and the issues he discussed need to be heard by the LGBT and general population.
“You could really feel his heart through his words,” Davis said. “Yes, there are things he could do right away, but you don’t want to do things haphazardly. Look at ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Our communities have been without anything for the past eight years, and I think we’re longing for anything we can grab onto right now. He’s only been in office for a little over five months; with what we’ve been through in the past eight years, sometimes patience is a virtue. I felt confident that right now he’s talking the talk, but will eventually walk the walk with us.”
Kameny also disagreed with the contention that the administration is not moving quickly enough.
“I can understand that people get impatient, but things take time,” he said. “The president has been in office for about 160 days. It took us 10 years to turn the psychiatrists around. As a personal project, it took me 30 years, one month, four days and 11 hours to get the D.C. sodomy law repealed. To say he hasn’t done everything we want in 160 days is unreasonable.”
Kameny also referenced the “extremely full platter” handed down to Obama by the previous administration, adding that, “Unlike his predecessor, his heart is very much in the right place. I have no reason to think he’s not 100-percent sincere. And unless we somehow end up with an extremely intransigent Congress, I think we will see many of these issues resolved by the time his administration is over.”