In his fourth annual White House reception honoring LGBT Pride Month, President Barack Obama was able to say the words many were impatient to hear — and others doubted they would before he was safely reelected.
“Americans may be still evolving when it comes to marriage equality — but as I've indicated personally, Michelle and I have made up our minds on this issue,” he told a crowd of roughly 500 in an East Room ceremony on June 15.
The remark was greeted with enthusiastic applause — and no small amount of laughter, given the impatience that many LGBT Americans, not to mention the White House press corps eager for a story, voiced about the president’s repeated assertions that he himself was “evolving” prior to his dramatic May 9 statement of support.
The reference to gay marriage came toward the end of a brief address in which Obama reviewed a familiar litany of administration accomplishments — enactment of a federal hate crimes law; repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; development of a national HIV/ AIDS strategy long sought by advocates fighting the epidemic; the guarantee that partners of LGBT hospital patients will have visitation rights; elimination under his health care reform law of insurance exceptions for pre-existing conditions; expansion of partner benefits for federal employees and a ban on discrimination based on gender identity in government employment; the Justice Department’s decision to no longer defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act in court; and the State Department’s announcement that it would support LGBT rights globally.
“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,” the president said. “After decades of inaction and indifference, you have every reason and right to push, loudly and forcefully, for equality.”
On numerous occasions in the past, Obama has pledged to be “a fierce advocate” on LGBT issues — a formulation that often sparked scorn in activists who felt his administration was either uncommitted on key issues or excessively timid in pursuing them. Alluding to the choice facing gay voters this fall, the president told the crowd that as long as he was in office, “you won't just have a friend in the White House, you will have a fellow advocate.”
In his remarks, Obama made just one shout-out — to Dr. Marjorie Hill, the chief executive officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
After noting the development of the national AIDS strategy, he said, “Marjorie Hill, the head of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, is here. GMHC has saved so many lives, and this year they are celebrating their 30th anniversary. 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.”
Afterward, Hill said she was happy just to hear the president talk about HIV. The personal acknowledgment of her work caught her completely off guard.
Three Duke University students invited to the reception — senior Elena Botella, junior Jacob Tobia, and sophomore Adrienne Harreveld — made certain to secure a spot at the front of a tightly packed audience in order to hand the president a letter urging him to sign an executive order requiring contractors doing business with the federal government to implement policies against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. This spring, the administration told advocates it did not plan to move on such an order, instead focusing its efforts on pushing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) long stalled in Congress.
In an email message, Harreveld confirmed that the students shook hands with the president, but said a staffer at Obama’s side took the letter — “for security reasons I am guessing.” Harreveld said, “We asked the staffer if Obama would see the letter and he assured us he would.” The president also agreed he would review the letter.
The Duke students were fortunate to gain access to the president, who shook hands only with those at the front of the crowd during his brief appearance. Moments after leaving the East Room, he and his family were seen on the White House lawn boarding Marine One on the first leg of a Father’s Day trip home to Chicago.
In addition to Hill, the crowd included City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and her wife Kim Catullo, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Evan Wolfson, who founded Freedom to Marry, Edie Windsor, a widow who recently won a district court victory in her challenge to DOMA involving an inheritance tax penalty of more than $350,000, Michael Silverman, who heads the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, and Alan Fleishman and Scott Klein, longtime leaders at Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats.
Fred Hochberg, the out gay president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the former dean of the New School’s Milano Management and Urban Policy School, was among administration officials on hand.
Notable non-gay attendees included West Side Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye, and Gavin Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor. As San Francisco’s mayor in 2004, Newsom married several thousand same-sex couples prior to the courts stepping in and voiding the unions. The lieutenant governor — perhaps due to his politics, perhaps to what two attendees called his “movie-star good looks” — created a buzz as he wandered through the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms adjoining the East Room.