It’s been several hours since news leaked that President Barack Obama would be addressing attendees of the Human Rights Campaign's annual fund-raising dinner Saturday night, and already the pressure is mounting.
“I am most eager to hear what he has to say,” said David Mixner, a longtime LGBT activist and campaign supporter of Obama who has grown dissatisfied with the president’s lack of action. “If it's a lot of, ‘I'm with you guys, I love you guys, and you won't be disappointed,’ I think that message is going to be devastating.”
The speech comes during a weekend when thousands of LGBT activists will descend on Washington for the National March for Equality in order to register their discontent with the Administration.
Mixner, who initially called for a march following the release of a Justice Department brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act, echoed a notion common among LGBT advocates these days -- that the time for talk is over, they want action and specifics. And although legislation to extend hate-crimes protections to LGBT people could reach the president's desk sometime this month, few activists mentioned it as their main priority.
“I'm really hoping the president comes out against the initiative in Maine,” Mixner said, referring to the state’s November 3 referendum that seeks to overturn the law legalizing same-sex marriage. “I can't see any reason why he wouldn't do it there and I'm sure HRC made that a contingency.”
A spokesman for HRC said the timing was ideal for the speech, not in spite of, but specifically because of the protests. “We knew it was an important opportunity for our community to hear from a very supportive president at a time when there’s going to be a lot of attention on full equality for the LGBT community,” said Brad Luna of HRC.
But advocates will be looking for the kind of particulars that the White House has been short on when it comes to equal rights. Obama already delivered a feel-good, I’m-on-your-side message this summer at a White House reception for the LGBT community. During that speech, he reiterated all of his campaign promises to support initiatives like federal hate-crimes protections and employment nondiscrimination legislation as well as the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
But to date, activists say it’s difficult to find the White House footprint on much of anything specifically related to the advancement of LGBT rights. “It’s been 11 months since the election; he has expended very little political capital for our benefit,” said Richard Socarides, a former LGBT adviser and special assistant to President Bill Clinton. “He needs to deliver on ending the military gay ban and come out for marriage equality -- like Clinton did recently -- if he is going to change the general perception in the gay community that this continues to be a very low priority for him now.”
Even members of Congress seem to be seeking leadership from the president on big-ticket items like the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell." Last week, news surfaced that Senate majority leader Harry Reid sent a letter to Obama requesting that he send his “recommendations on DADT” to Congress. “At a time when we are fighting two wars,” Reid added, “I do not believe we can afford to discharge any qualified individual who is willing to serve our country."
Although the White House has stressed congressional repeal as the only sustainable way to overturn the policy, no repeal legislation has been introduced in the Senate. A House repeal bill that was dropped in the spring now has 176 cosponsors.
But as recently as this past weekend, White House National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones indicated that the president had other priorities besides overturning the ban. “The president has an awful lot on his desk,” Jones told CNN’s John King. “I know this is an issue that he intends to take on at the appropriate time.” When King pressed further for a timeline, Jones said, “I don’t think it’s going to be -- it’s not years -- but I think, I think, it’ll be teed up appropriately."
Those comments disappointed Lt. Dan Choi, an Arabic linguist who was discharged from the Army earlier this year for acknowledging he is gay. “When there’s a more convenient time, then I suppose he’ll make sure all of our units have the kind of effective force multipliers, like Arabic linguists, that we need in a time of two wars,” said Lieutenant Choi, who has become a de facto spokesman for DADT repeal and will be attending the LGBT equality march this weekend. Choi hoped the president would make a statement to Congress to ensure the bill is a priority.
Cleve Jones, the organizer of the march on Washington, welcomed the news that President Obama would be addressing an LGBT equality group about the very issues that are fueling this weekend’s action. “We intend to hold his administration accountable as we fight for full and equal protection for LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law in all 50 states,” Jones said.
It's a challenge the White House appears to be embracing. "The president looks forward to speaking at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner on Saturday and speaking directly to the LGBT community," said White House spokesman Shin Inouye.