Strong Words, But Still Evolving

At HRC Obama gives tough talk to GOP opponents, later tells ABC News he's ''still working'' on marriage equality

by Chris Geidner
Published on October 6, 2011, 5:21am | Comments

Saturday evening, Oct. 1, President Barack Obama addressed the Human Rights Campaign for the second time in his presidency, speaking at the Washington Convention Center to a crowd of approximately 3,000 people.

In one of the strongest attacks yet from the president against his potential Republican 2012 challengers, he referenced the failure of any of them to condemn audience members at a recent GOP debate who booed a gay servicemember.

Solmonese and President Obama at HRC National Dinner 2011

Solmonese and President Obama at HRC National Dinner 2011

''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. We don't believe in that,'' he told the crowd to loud applause.

''You want to be commander in chief?'' he said with his voice rising. ''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.''

Obama touted the administration's accomplishments on LGBT issues, from the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, to the hospital-visitation executive order, to the end of the HIV travel ban, to the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

He also discussed his support for ending the Defense of Marriage Act, saying, ''I vowed to keep up the fight against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. There's a bill to repeal this discriminatory law in Congress, and I want to see that passed. But until we reach that day, my administration is no longer defending DOMA in the courts. I believe the law runs counter to the Constitution, and it's time for it to end once and for all. It should join 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in the history books.''

Obama also raised his support for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act – a topic that went unmentioned at the dinner in HRC President Joe Solmonese's comments, which focused on past successes and the future of marriage equality.

The president did not, however, finish ''evolving'' to a position in support of full marriage equality, as some LGBT activists had hoped. Further, in an interview with ABC News in the days after the HRC address, Obama confirmed that he has not reached a position of supporting full marriage equality, telling George Stephanopoulos, ''I'm still working on it.''

To that, Freedom to Marry's president, Evan Wolfson, said in a statement, ''This drawn out 'evolution' no longer feels authentic and it's time for the President to join the majority for marriage.''

In his HRC address, the president also did not mention by name the states – Minnesota and North Carolina – that are slated to have constitutional marriage amendments on their ballots in 2012.

Obama did, however, generically reference them, saying, ''And I don't have to tell you, there are those who don't want to just stand in our way but want to turn the clock back; who want to return to the days when gay people couldn't serve their country openly; who reject the progress that we've made; who, as we speak, are looking to enshrine discrimination into state laws and constitutions – efforts that we've got to work hard to oppose, because that's not what America should be about.''

Besides President Obama's keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign's 15th annual national dinner, the two key political speeches came from a representative from Wisconsin and a mayor from New York.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) told the crowd – to thunderous applause – "I'm Tammy Baldwin, and I'm running for Senate."

Baldwin, who was introduced by longtime HRC board of directors member Bruce Bastian, has announced that she is seeking the Democratic nomination in 2012 for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who is retiring at the end of this term.

Baldwin told the crowd, "I come from a state that isn't fully blue or red, but somewhere in the middle.''

"To be perfectly honest with you," she said, "most of the people that I represent couldn't care less that I'm gay. … They care about making sure that they can find a good job."

Referencing successes – including marriage equality in New York and the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Baldwin said, "Together, we have made this country more just and safer for all Americans to be who they are."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) accepted HRC's National Ally for Equality Award for his work in support of marriage equality in New York.

After being introduced by Sarah Jessica Parker, Bloomberg told the crowd that "when two people commit their lives to one another, no government should stand in the way."

The mayor, previously elected as a Republican, also said, "Marriage equality is fundamentally consistent with both parties' principles."

The program ended with a salute to Solmonese, who has announced he will be leaving his role as the head of the organization at the end of his current contract in March 2012. Cyndi Lauper played several hits as part of the tribute, including ''True Colors'' – which was the name given to the tour headlined by Lauper in 2007 and benefitting HRC.

After the program concluded, Mika performed at an after-party that also took place at the convention center and was sponsored by Google.

Mika Ben Cohen Cyndi Lauper Sarah Jessica Parker Michael Bloomberg Tammy Baldwin Greyson Chance Jesse Tyler Ferguson President Barack Obama