Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nice Talk

President Obama gave a very nice talk to a large group of gay activists in the East Room at the White House, reiterating his campaign pledges to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell (DADT), and push for full benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees. (Andrew Sullivan has the full text of the speech here.) And he acknowledged that he and his administration have not moved fast enough for some of us.

And I know that many in this room don’t believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.

But I say this: We have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps. And by the time you receive — (applause.) We’ve been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.

The president also went out of his way to make the link between the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans and the gay-rights movement that was launched at Stonewall in 1969.

As we’ve seen so many times in history, once that spirit takes hold there is little that can stand in its way. (Applause.) And the riots at Stonewall gave way to protests, and protests gave way to a movement, and the movement gave way to a transformation that continues to this day. It continues when a partner fights for her right to sit at the hospital bedside of a woman she loves. It continues when a teenager is called a name for being different and says, “So what if I am?” It continues in your work and in your activism, in your fight to freely live your lives to the fullest.

In one year after the protests, a few hundred gays and lesbians and their supporters gathered at the Stonewall Inn to lead a historic march for equality. But when they reached Central Park, the few hundred that began the march had swelled to 5,000. Something had changed, and it would never change back.

The truth is when these folks protested at Stonewall 40 years ago no one could have imagined that you — or, for that matter, I — (laughter) — would be standing here today. (Applause.) So we are all witnesses to monumental changes in this country. That should give us hope, but we cannot rest. We must continue to do our part to make progress — step by step, law by law, mind by changing mind. And I want you to know that in this task I will not only be your friend, I will continue to be an ally and a champion and a President who fights with you and for you.

That’s nice to hear, and it’s certainly something you would never have heard from a Republican president, even in this day and age. And, as Hendrik Hertzberg reminds us in The New Yorker, we — both the LGBT and straight communities — have come a long way in forty years. Three years before the Stonewall riots, Time magazine, considered to be the voice of moderately tolerant America, viewed homosexuality thus:

[It] is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste—and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.

Nine years later, the magazine would have a change of tune; they put Leonard Matlovich, the first openly gay soldier to fight for his job, on the cover of the magazine. (Never let it be said that Time didn’t know how to spot a trend.)

As I’ve noted previously (here and here), the president’s pace at taking on issues such as DOMA and same-sex benefits have fallen short of the expectations of a lot of people, so the event yesterday in the East Room is welcome. But it takes more than a stirring speech in front of a group of supporters, even if some of them were skeptical. As Mr. Obama said, he’s taken the message of equality to places where such sentiments might not be welcome, such as church groups and business leaders. But if there’s to be any real results from what the president says, there’s one group who really needs to hear the message, and that’s the United States Congress.