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Obama, White House Celebrate Pride

Obama, White House Celebrate Pride


President Barack Obama told LGBT advocates who attended a White House Pride reception Tuesday that he would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with them as they fight for equality across the country.

"The fact that we have activists here is a reminder that change never comes - or at least never begins - in Washington," Obama said. "It is when ordinary people out of love for a mother or a father, a son or a daughter, or a husband or a wife, speak out against injustices that have been accepted for too long."

The group of about 300 seemed smaller than at last year's event and although it included some of the usual Washington suspects, White House officials also made an effort to invite younger activists from across the country who gave Obama a very warm welcome even if not all of them are thrilled with his policies.

Twenty-six year old Morgan Keenan who works with the St. Louis-based youth organization GAY (Growing American Youth) called it "progress" that the White House even holds such a reception but also expressed disappointment on LGBT equality advances.

"I know a lot of people in D.C. sort of play nice sometimes," Keenan said, "well, I'm in the states and I'm very angry about it." When Keenan pulled the lever for Obama, he said he expected more "blanket support" for LGBT issues and a faster withdrawal of the troops from the wars overseas.

The president welcomed activists to the East Room at a time when he is alternately earning praise and drawing criticism for his progress on the LGBT agenda items on which he campaigned.

The White House has issued a series of smaller policy announcements that are being carried out at the agency level such as extending limited benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers, the expansion of sick leave to non-biological, non-adoptive parents under the Family Medical Leave Act, and helping to equalize hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners.

Obama announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius "sent a letter today asking these hospitals to adopt these changes now - even before the rule change is adopted." The new rule must go through several months of public comment periods before it becomes official policy.

But the larger concerns like repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and passing the Employment Nondiscrimination Act to protect gay and transgender workers appear to have fallen off the map. Ending "don't ask, don't tell" is in process but the White House was a reluctant player in lobbying legislators for passage.

Still, Obama reminded the crowd, "Here's the bottom line: We have never been closer to ending that discriminatory policy."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs Tuesday depicted the president as taking steps toward making good on his promises from the 2008 election.

"Hospital visitation is something that the President always talked about during the campaign," Gibbs said in response to a question from The Advocate. "So I think many of the things you see happening, being implemented by this White House are implementing promises that the president made on the campaign trail and obviously there are things that you can do to demonstrate your values through executive action."

But Richard Socarides, former LGBT adviser to President Bill Clinton, isn't as impressed.

"Despite a steady trickle of these small scale positive steps, Obama shows no willingness to address our key issues," said Socarides, who did not attend the event. "Marriage equality and employment anti-discrimination legislation are nowhere on the White House radar, while they willingly defer to the military on 'don't ask, don't tell.'" (Continued on next page)

While many activists echo Keenan's and Socarides' thirst for leadership on the larger issues, Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign said the Obama administration is making progress.

"For those that have been denied their equality for decades change will never come soon enough," said Sainz, who also was not at the reception. "But sixteen months into this administration, I think President Obama has a credible level of accomplishment on behalf on LGBT people.

Sainz said the administration has been "largely constrained" by DOMA, which defines "marriage" as a union between one man and one woman and stipulates that "spouse" refers only to a person in a heterosexual marriage. For instance, the new interpretation of the Family Medical Leave Act would not expand sick leave to same-sex partners because they do not fit the federal definition of "spouse." Instead, it extends sick leave to people acting in the capacity of a parent because the law doesn't explicitly exclude non-adoptive, non-biological parents in a same-sex relationship.

"A lot of what you are seeing is a workaround to DOMA," Sainz said.

One place the Obama administration has made a discernible difference toward being more inclusive is in the culture of the federal agencies.

Both the Department of State and the Department of Justice held widely attended LGBT Pride receptions this week that included speeches by Secretary Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder respectively.

Chris Hook, who has been president of DOJ Pride since 2006, recalls a time when being open about your sexuality was not considered safe at the department.

"We had a mailing list of maybe 50 people when I started," Hook said. "The last time I checked we were over 150 people. Part of that is people being willing to be out and open again. There were a lot of people that did not see being open and out as a career enhancing move under the Ashcroft/Gonzalez administrations."

Hook said the LGBT group is now allowed to use internal communications systems without fear of retribution, post notices about meetings within the department, and access meeting areas that had previously been restricted during the Bush administration. The department is also developing a diversity plan for recruiting and retaining more equitably across different populations.

Even Keenan gushed at the opportunities provided by a more welcoming, if imperfect, White House. He brought two new high school graduates from his youth group with him from Missouri, one of whom is transgender.

"I wanted to show his parents that he could be successful," Keenan said. "It's an eye opener -- both of them had never been in an airplane before."

Obama said it was, in fact, young people like them who made him believe "the future is bright."

"They've shown incredible courage and incredible integrity -- standing up for who they are. They've refused to be anything less than themselves," he said. "These young people are helping to build a more perfect union, a nation where all of us are equal; each of us is free to pursue our own versions of happiness." (Continued on next page)

The official transcript is below:


East Room

6:16 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, hello, hello! (Applause.) Hello, everybody! (Applause.) I was going to say welcome to the White House -- but you guys seem like you feel right at home. (Laughter.) You don't need me to tell you -- it's the people's house.

A couple of acknowledgements that I want to make very quickly -- first of all, our Director of the Office of Personnel Management, who has just done an extraordinary job across the government -- give John Berry a big round of applause. (Applause.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: All right, John!

THE PRESIDENT: All right, John! (Laughter.)

Our chair of the Export/Import Bank, helping to bring jobs here to the United States of America -- Fred Hochberg. (Applause.) Our chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, doing outstanding work each and every day -- Nancy Sutley. Where is she? (Applause.) Nancy is a little vertically challenged, but I see her over there. (Laughter.)

We've got here a trailblazer for federal appointees -- we are so proud of her -- Ms. Roberta Achtenberg is here. Give Roberta a big round of applause. (Applause.) And then I understand we've got a terrific country singer -- Chely Wright is in the house. (Applause.)

In addition -- I know they had to leave because they had votes, but you guys obviously don't have just fiercer warriors on your behalf than a couple of our openly gay and lesbian members of Congress -- Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis. (Applause.) They are openly terrific. (Laughter.) They do great work.

And it is also great to have so many activists and organizers from around the country -- folks who fight every day for the rights of parents and children and partners and citizens to be treated equally under the law. And so we are very proud of all of you. (Applause.)

Oh, and by the way, the guy standing next to me -- this is Joe Biden. (Applause.) Just because he's a Phillies fan -- he's from Delaware. (Laughter.)

Now, look, the fact that we've got activists here is important because it's a reminder that change never comes -- or at least never begins in Washington. It begins with acts of compassion -- and sometimes defiance -- across America. It begins when ordinary people -- out of love for a mother or a father, son or daughter, or husband or wife -- speak out against injustices that have been accepted for too long. And it begins when these impositions of conscience start opening hearts that had been closed, and when we finally see each other's humanity, whatever our differences.

Now, this struggle is as old as America itself. It's never been easy. But standing here, I am hopeful. One year ago, in this room, we marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall protests. (Applause.) Some of you were here, and you may remember that I pledged then that even at a time when we faced enormous challenges both on the economy and in our foreign policy, that we would not put aside matters of basic equality. And we haven't.

We've got a lot of hard work that we still have to do, but we can already point to extraordinary progress that we've made over the past year on behalf of Americans who are gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

Just stay with me here for a second. Last year, I met with Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard's mom, and I promised her that after a decade's-long struggle, we would pass inclusive hate crimes legislation. I promised that in the name of her son we would ensure that the full might of the law is brought down on those who would attack somebody just because they are gay. And less than six months later, with Judy by my side, we marked the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act. It's now the law of the land. (Applause.)

Just a few moments ago, I met with Janice Langbehn and her children. Where did Janice go? There they are right there. And when Janice's partner of 18 years, Lisa, suddenly collapsed because of an aneurysm, Janice and the couple's three kids were denied the chance to comfort their partner and their mom -- barred from Lisa's bedside. It was wrong. It was cruel. And in part because of their story, I instructed my Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to make sure that any hospital that's participating in Medicare or Medicaid -- that means most hospitals -- (laughter) -- allow gay and lesbian partners the same privileges and visitation rights as straight partners. (Applause.)

After I issued that memorandum, I called Janice and I told her the news. And before we came out here today, I wanted to make sure that I had followed up -- Secretary Sebelius will officially be proposing this regulation. And I can also announce that the Secretary has sent a letter today asking these hospitals to adopt these changes now -- even before the rule takes effect. (Applause.) Nothing can undo the hurt that her -- that Janice's family has experienced. And nothing can undo the pain felt by countless others who've been through a similar ordeal -- for example, Charlene Strong is here. She lost her wife, Kate Fleming -- and Charlene is here along with Kate's mom, who said on behalf of all mothers, thank you. Because we think it's the right thing to do. (Applause.)

In addition, I've issued an executive order[SIC]* to extend as many partnership benefits to gay and lesbian federal employees as possible under current law. And I'm going to continue to fight to change the law: to guarantee gay federal employees the exact same benefits as straight employees -- including access to health insurance and retirement plans. (Applause.) And in an announcement today, the Department of Labor made clear that under the Family and Medical Leave Act, same-sex couples -- as well as others raising children -- are to be treated like the caretakers that they are. (Applause.)

Because I believe in committed -- I believe that committed gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country, I have called for Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. (Applause.) We are pushing hard to pass an inclusive employee non-discrimination bill. (Applause.) No one in America should be fired because they're gay. It's not right, it's not who we are as Americans, and we are going to put a stop to it.

And finally, we're going to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". (Applause.) That is a promise I made as a candidate. It is a promise that I reiterated as President. It's one that this administration is going to keep. Now, the only way to lock this in -- the only way to get the votes in Congress to roll back this policy -- is if we work with the Pentagon, who are in the midst of two wars.

And that's why we were gratified to see, for the first time ever, the Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, testify in favor of repeal. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, has repeatedly and passionately argued for allowing gay men and women to serve honestly in the military. (Applause.) We know that forcing gay and lesbian soldiers to live a lie or to leave the military, that doesn't contribute to our security -- it harms our security.

And thanks to Patrick Murphy and others, for the first time in history, the House has passed a repeal that would allow gay men and women to openly serve in our armed forces. And this repeal is authored so that the Pentagon can complete its review of the policy -- which is critical, by the way, not only to passage, but it's also critical to making sure that the change is accepted and implemented effectively. In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee has approved repeal for the first time, and the full body is poised to vote soon.

So here's the bottom line: We have never been closer to ending this discriminatory policy. And I'm going to keep on fighting until that bill is on my desk and I can sign it. (Applause.)

Of course, ultimately, change is about more than just policies in our government. And that's why I want to close by recognizing all the young people who are here -- I had a chance to take a bunch of pictures with them, just really impressive folks who are advocating on their behalf. I know there are some in the audience who have experienced pain in their lives, who at times have been -- felt like outcasts, who have been scorned or bullied, and I know that there are families here on behalf of loved ones who are no longer with us, some in part because of the particularly difficult challenges that gay men and women still face.

This is a reminder that we all have an obligation to ensure that no young person is ever made to feel worthless or alone -- ever. Now, at the same time, I think there's plenty of reason to have some hope for many of the young people including those who are here today. They've shown incredible courage and incredible integrity -- standing up for who they are. They've refused to be anything less than themselves.

And we all remember being young -- sort of. (Laughter.) But it's not easy. It's not easy standing up all the time and being who you are. But they're showing us the way forward. These young people are helping to build a more perfect union, a nation where all of us are equal; each of us is free to pursue our own versions of happiness.

And I believe because of them that the future is bright. It's certainly bright for them. Of course, it does depend on all of us. It depends on the efforts of government and the activism of ordinary citizens like yourselves. It depends on the love of families and the support of communities. And I want you all to know that as this work continues, I'm going to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you, fighting by your side every step of the way. (Applause.)

So, thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
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