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Obama's HRC Gay Rights' Speech Inspires Hope and Skepticism

Obama's HRC Gay Rights' Speech Inspires Hope and Skepticism

Saturday, October 10, 2009: On the eve of the National Equality March in Washington D.C., President Obama addressed a crowd gathered at the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner on the topic of gay and lesbian rights. The community has heard much of what Obama had to say on the campaign trail but has yet to come to fruition. Will Obama turn the tide for LGBT rights or was his speech more hopeful rhetoric?

Saturday, October 10, 2009: On the eve of the National Equality March in Washington D.C., President Obama addressed a crowd gathered at the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner on the topic of gay and lesbian rights.  The HRC is the nation's largest civil rights group for LGBT people and has fought for 30 years to pass hate crimes legislation and other laws that protect and benefit the gay community.  It was fitting, then, that this politically powerful group would enlist the help of the nation's most progressive president in shedding light on their cause and the struggles of the gay community at large. 

The speech was what we have come to expect from our new president: eloquent, confident, intelligent, and positive.  His charismatic baritone washed over a highly receptive crowd eager to applaud his promises and shower him with Obama love.  He spoke to our souls and brought tears to our eyes when he described the Stonewall riots and the torture and murder of Mathew Shepard.  He insisted over and over in our basic humanity and our right to live and love freely.  Along with pushing Congress to pass an inclusive employee non-discrimination bill and hate crimes legislation, he announced his plans to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" act that was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993. 

The law is simple: if you're a gay person in the military, you can't tell anyone (i.e. you can't be "out") and if you are a service member and suspect that one of your fellow companions might be gay, you're not allowed to ask them.  If either of these conditions is broken, military personnel face immediate disciplinary action.  Our government has already dishonorably discharged many valued members solely because they chose to be openly gay, Lt. Dan Choi, a much-needed Arabic translator. 

Sounds kind of ridiculous, doesn't it?  It is.  Considering the fact that America currently has an international reputation on the line, not to mention fighting two overseas wars, who are we to say who can and can't serve in our armed forces? I, for one, would never even consider donning fatigues and learning how to work a machine gun.  However, in an era when a compulsory draft is no longer enforced and it is harder and harder for the government to find willing volunteers, it seems that banning gays from serving openly in the military is imprudent at best and downright stupid at worst.  In his speech, Obama declared:

"We are moving forward on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'  We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve the country...We should be celebrating their willingness to step forward and show such courage ... especially when we are fighting two wars...So I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership, and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's my commitment to you."

Gay activists, however, are skeptical of Obama's bold declaration.  It isn't as though this is the first time our president has led the gay community to believe that he would take decisive action in favor of our rights, only to delay those promises later, claiming that not enough time and energy has gone by to enact real change.  Many people believe that we won't see these changes, if any, until his hypothetical election to a second term in which the fear of losing votes no longer exists and he can act with more impunity.   

Clearly, someone had brought it to Obama's attention that the gays have become disgruntled with his hesitance to get these bills written and passed.  He has the power to wake up tomorrow morning and repeal DADT, but so far he hasn't, while more and more qualified men and women get discharged.  The questions on our mind is: "What will he do for us?" and, perhaps most importantly, "When?"  In response, the President declared:

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"I'm here with a simple message: I'm here with you in that fight. For even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot -- and we will not -- put aside issues of basic equality. I greatly appreciate the support I've received from many in this room. I also appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough. I want to be honest about that, because it's important to be honest among friends."

Yes, sir, honesty is important, but just because Obama isn't directly lying to us does not mean that he can't be held up to scrutiny for what he did not say.  Great speakers know that the most powerful weapon in their arsenal is word choice, and Obama is no exception.  He knows his audience and he knows how they will react to what he says.  For instance, he brought to our attention one of the most common challenges we face as gays and lesbians: that people tend to judge us on just this one tiny aspect of ourselves and refuse to see us for any of our other qualities.  And he is right to bring this up; no one should be defined solely by who he or she is attracted to or loves.  He then used the energy generated by that statement as a jumping off point to remind us that as well as being gay, we are also Americans who bear the brunt of the economic crisis and feel its impact on our families just like everybody else.  Also true, but not about gay rights anymore. 

Granted, I am fully willing to be patient with the man as he deals with healthcare and the economy, problems that are arguably more important than gay marriage at this point in time.  We all need jobs and we all need quality, affordable medical care and we get that.  Plus, weddings are expensive and how can we expect to impress the ladies if we can't even afford a date?  We also can't forget that the guy is fighting off extremist lunatics on a daily basis-for trying to save lives through reformed healthcare.  Imagine what the crazies would do if he passed a federal gay marriage law out of the blue.

Speaking of which, he referred to DOMA as the "so-called Defense of Marriage Act," a bold statement, and promised to one day replace it with the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act.  This is promising in that he acknowledged the law's glaring irony of claiming to "defend" marriage while excluding gays, but at the end of the day it is still just a lot of rhetoric.  Actions will always speak louder than words, and we are still waiting for the day when we can be treated as equals and first-class citizens in our country.  As an African American, he sought to speak directly to us as fellow minorities on the subject of waiting:  

"Now, I've said this before, I'll repeat it again -- it's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago.  But I will say this: We have made progress and we will make more...So I know you want me working on jobs and the economy and all the other issues that we're dealing with. But my commitment to you is unwavering even as we wrestle with these enormous problems. And while progress may be taking longer than you'd like as a result of all that we face -- and that's the truth -- do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach."

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The speech left me emotional, hopeful, but a little troubled.  I love that he is willing to stand up in front of the nation and "come out," so to speak, on behalf of the LGBT community instead of just regurgitating the "marriage is one man, one woman" line that has been worn to death by even the most liberal politicians.  However, I am not going to hold my breath waiting for all of this anti-discriminatory legislation to pass; real change requires real action and we have yet to see these promises to fruition.  He can say all he wants about passing these laws, but with no timetable, that could mean anything from a month to several years.   

Still, Obama is the first president we've ever had who is even willing to address these critical civil rights issues (can you imagine George W. Bush giving a speech like this?) and we should probably give him a little time to straighten out the economy and the swine flu before he tackles gay rights.  I heard on the news today that 80 percent of economists are announcing that the Recession is ending and we are now entering a period of recovery.  So maybe we are headed somewhere, and perhaps the time scale is too large to notice daily progress.  I mean, the guy gave a shout-out to Lady Gaga, one of our most outspoken (and fabulous) allies.  Joe Solomnese, the president of the HRC asserted that he is hopeful: "We have never had a stronger ally in the White House. Never."

For now, I can be content with waiting, and knowing that the president is on my side, but if in a year I start to feel as if I've landed in one of those endless, dystopian Samuel Beckett plays, the White House can expect my cal

Watch the full video and let us know what you think of Obama's address! 



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Katie Boyden