WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama hosted his fourth LGBT Pride Month Reception at the White House on Friday, marking the occasion with a speech that received the loudest applause for its mentions of “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and his administration’s decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act.
An estimated 500 leaders, students, politicians, and a few celebrities packed the East Room in the afternoon to mingle and hear remarks from the president. A military band played, guests enjoyed champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and Obama entered around 5:15 p.m. to sustained cheers and proceeded to outline his administration’s major accomplishments for the LGBT community.
The invitation-only crowd, which included a sizable contingent of service members in uniform for the first time, erupted into applause when the president said that “last year we finally put an end to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ so that nobody would ever have to ever again hide who they love in order to serve the country they love.”
“I'm happy to see you with your partners here,” said Obama to the service members. “We thank you for your service. We thank your families for their service, and we share your joy at being able to come with your spouses or partners here to the White House with your commander in chief.”
The president mentioned the Matthew Shepard Act, hospital visitation rights for same-sex partners, and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. He also cited the lifting of the HIV entry ban that will allow the International AIDS Conference to be held in the United States for the first time next month in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve supported efforts in Congress to end the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” he said to increasing applause. “And as we wait for that law to be cast aside, we’ve stopped defending its constitutionality in the courts.”
The event also marked the first such reception where the president has been on the record as a supporter of marriage equality. He seemed to make a joke about his long “evolution” in the remarks.
“And Americans may be still evolving when it comes to marriage equality,” he said, “but as I've indicated personally, Michelle and I have made up our minds on this issue.”
Obama announced his support for marriage equality in May. Last year, activist Dan Savage attended the reception and garnered headlines with a button that said, “Evolve Already.”
“It’s less awkward than last year, let’s put it that way,” said one person who attended the reception Friday.
The president acknowledged the prodding that has made the progress he listed possible.
“Now, I’ve said before that I would never counsel patience; that it wasn’t right to tell you to be patient any more than it was right for others to tell women to be patient a century ago, or African-Americans to be patient a half century ago,” he said. “After decades of inaction and indifference, you have every reason and right to push, loudly and forcefully, for equality.”
“But three years ago, I also promised you this: I said that even if it took more time than we would like, we would see progress, we would see success, we would see real and lasting change,” he said. “And together, that’s what we’re witnessing.”
Looking forward, Obama said that work remained to “raise awareness about bullying” and to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. A Senate committee held the first hearing in nearly three years on the bill last Tuesday, but no vote is guaranteed.
“Americans may feel more comfortable bringing their partners to the office barbecue,” said the president, “but we're still waiting for a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Congress needs to pass that legislation, so that no American is ever fired simply for being gay or transgender.”
James Clementi of New Jersey said that it was "incredible" to be at the White House and hear the president's statement of support for antibullying efforts. His younger brother, Tyler Clementi, took his own life in 2010 after his college roommate spied on him with another man. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, was convicted of invasion of privacy and other charges and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
"We have come a long way and at the same time it is bittersweet," said Clementi. "A lot of the changes that have happened have been great for adults who have made it through the process of coming out, but I also think there are so many children who have not gotten to that space yet. Our society is not comfortable in accepting them, and we have a responsibility to them."
Obama decided in April not to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but a group of three North Carolina college students sought to keep that issue on his agenda Friday. Earlier in the day, the president announced he would issue an executive order to halt the deportations of young people brought to the United States illegally as children, an cause on which immigrant and gay activists have collaborated.
“As a young student who will soon be entering the job market, it’s terrifying to me that I could be fired because of who I am,” said Duke University junior Jacob Tobia. “This is something that could be changed right now with the stroke of a pen.”
The group handed a letter to one of the president’s aides, and when Obama came to greet them and others in the front row afterward, the students told the president that they hoped he would read it. According to Tobia, he responded, “OK.”
Obama acknowledged in his speech the openly gay members of his administration “who are doing outstanding work every day,” including John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management; Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank; and Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He reserved a special shout-out in his speech for Marjorie Hill, CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which is based in New York City.
“GMHC has saved so many lives, and this year they are celebrating their 30th anniversary,” said the president. “So I want to give them and all these organizations who work to prevent and treat HIV a big round of applause. Give it up for Marjorie and everybody else.”
Others spotted in the crowd included Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC; New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn and her spouse, Kim Catullo; Pennsylvania House of Representatives candidate Brian Sims; journalist Jonathan Capehart; and Freedom to Marry founder and executive director Evan Wolson.
The president concluded his remarks, which lasted about 10 minutes, with a pledge to continue working for more milestones.
“So we still have a long way to go, but we will get there,” he said. “We'll get there because of all of you. We’ll get there because of all of the ordinary Americans who every day show extraordinary courage. We’ll get there because of every man and woman and activist and ally who is moving us forward by the force of their moral arguments, but more importantly, by the force of their example.
“And as long as I have the privilege of being your president, I promise you, you won't just have a friend in the White House, you will have a fellow advocate for an America where no matter what you look like or where you come from or who you love, you can dream big dreams and dream as openly as you want.”