President Barack Obama blasted GOP presidential candidates for the now infamous booing incident of a gay soldier at a Republican debate while touting his LGBT rights accomplishments in a keynote at the Human Rights Campaign's 15th annual national dinner Saturday in Washington, D.C.
The last time he stood at the podium of an HRC dinner in October 2009, Obama pledged to end "don't ask, don't tell," now consigned to the history books as evidenced by many in the crowd who attended in military dress uniform.
This evening, before more than 3,000 attendees in the cavernous Washington Convention Center, the president listed significant advancements for gay rights during his administration -- among them, passage of hate crimes legislation, an executive order on hospital visitation rights, and a July endorsement of a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
Obama did not make any revelatory statements regarding his evolving views on marriage equality -- nor did he address the cynical, anti-gay marriage ballot measures in Minnesota and North Carolina -- but told the audience that he has never expected complacency from the LGBT community.
"So, yes, we have more work to do," Obama said. "And after so many years -- even decades -- of inaction, you've got every right to push against the slow pace of change. But make no mistake -- I want people to feel encouraged here -- we are making change. We're making real and lasting change. We can be proud of the progress we've already made."
Following his recitation of accomplished goals -- as well as a plea for all-hands-on-deck support in the 2012 reelection campaign -- Obama leveled a pointed criticism at Republican presidential candidates who participated in a Sept. 22 debate in which a gay service member's video question on DADT repeal was met with a smattering of jeers in the audience.
"We don't believe in a small America. We don't believe in the kind of smallness that says it's okay for a stage full of political leaders -- one of whom could end up being the President of the United States -- being silent when an American soldier is booed," Obama said as the crowd gave a rousing standing ovation. "We don't believe in standing silent when that happens. ... You want to be Commander-in-Chief? You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it's not politically convenient."
That attack didn't sit well with the Log Cabin Republicans: Deputy Executive Director Christian Berle said the jab "underscored [Obama's] focus on politics over policy in his speech."
"The crowd response [at the debate] was out of bounds in any view and should not be tolerated. After the debate, Governors [Jon] Huntsman and [Gary] Johnson were quick to rebuke such actions, as that was the appropriate time," Berle said. "President Obama should be ashamed that he used that incident to score political points and to hide the fact that his speech tonight did not say anything of substance for gay and lesbian Americans."
Others thought the charge was on point, and that the speech was an accurate reflection of an administration that has made significant progress for LGBT rights on multiple fronts. "Contrasting this speech from two years ago, the president showed exactly what he has accomplished," said Chad Griffin, board president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights who co-hosted a Los Angeles fundraiser for the Obama campaign earlier this year. "In 2009, he said, I will repeal 'don't ask, don't tell,' I will sign hate crimes -- and today he had the opportunity to say that he has delivered. It was a bold speech. Clearly we need to reelect this president."
Obama also tackled the issue of LGBT bullying, sadly again in the headlines following the recent suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer. Earlier at the dinner, Greyson Chance, who skyrocketed to fame last year after his rendition of Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" became a YouTube sensation, performed his song "Purple Sky" at a Yamaha grand piano and intoned Rodemeyer's name following the last chord.
"I want all those kids to know that the President and the First Lady is standing right by them every inch of the way," Obama said. "I want them to know that we love them and care about them, and they're not by themselves. That's what I want them to know."
Accepting HRC's National Ally for Equality Award, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was accompanied by Sarah Jessica Parker as he entered the dinner, said of the recent marriage equality victory in the Empire State, "It's an honor that in the city I love and call home, all couples have an equal opportunity to love and marry each other. ... We take you as you are."
Prior to introducing Obama, HRC president Joe Solmonese called his tenure at the LGBT organization "an extraordinary journey marked as much by the lows as the highs ... I have had the privilege and the honor to work with people who have been the heroes and trailblazers in this movement." Solmonese announced in August that he would leave his position in March after joining HRC in 2005.