WASHINGTON — President Obama made sweeping pledges Saturday before gay and lesbian activists, promising to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and work to undo the law that prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
Obama, addressing a gala dinner hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said he would work for "full equality" across the board. Although there have been advances in gay rights, Obama said, there are "still laws to change and hearts to open."
The president, who has made similar pledges in the past, did not spell out a timetable for these initiatives, but he told the audience that they eventually would view "these years as a time when we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians."
One night after winning the this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Obama arrived at the dinner-fundraiser with fence-mending to do. He acknowledged in his remarks that some gays have been dissatisfied with the pace of his reforms.
Addressing those who stand up against discrimination, he said had a simple message: "I'm here with you in that fight."
He added, "Do not doubt the direction we are headed and the destination we will reach."
"Don't ask, don't tell" is the Defense Department's policy of allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military so long as they do not disclose or act on their sexual orientation. Already, Obama is working with Pentagon leaders on ways to scrap the law.
"I will end 'don't ask, don't tell' -- that is my commitment," Obama said to loud applause.
He took the stage to a standing ovation and often had audience members back on their feet, applauding thunderously. "We love you!" one person cried out as Obama opened. "I love you back," the president replied from the stage.
The federal Defense of Marriage Act, often called DOMA, allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. It also bars federal recognition of such unions.
In an address that was at times poignant and reflected on the sometimes "painful and heartbreaking" experiences gays face, Obama said he recognized that a gay relationship was "just as admirable as a relationship between a man and a woman."
Despite the warm welcome Obama received Saturday night, some members of the gay and lesbian community have been disheartened not only by what they perceive as the president's glacial pace, but by the one-step-forward, one-step-backward progress on the state level. Their Exhibit A is California's Proposition 8, which halted same-sex marriages after they had been permitted by the state Supreme Court. (Obama has said he opposes same-sex marriage.)
Now activists promise to exert a new push for more rights with respect to marriage, adoption, the workplace, immigration and other realms.
Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports openly gay and lesbian office-seekers and elected officials, gives Obama a grade of "incomplete."
Some protesters gathered outside the convention hall Saturday, and among them was Mark Katzenberger, 53, a software instructor from San Francisco, who pronounced the president's record "miserable." Katzenberger held a sign reading: "How about the Audacity of Action, Mr. President?"
The uneven track record to date has Cleve Jones, 54, a former aide to late gay rights leader Harvey Milk, fed up with what he termed "incrementalism" and tired of politicians telling activists to prioritize their demands. He compared his cause to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. "We want equal protection under the law on all matters governed by civil law -- in all 50 states. That's also known as the 14th Amendment," he said.
Today, Jones will lead a crowd expected to reach into the thousands in a rally, billed as the National Equality March, which will culminate with a rally at the Capitol.
Obama was the second president to appear at the annual Human Rights Campaign gala. The first was President Clinton in 1997.
At Saturday's event, one attendee after another pronounced Obama's speech "amazing." LaWana Mayfield, 39, a lesbian and community organizer from Charlotte, N.C., said: "He understands the importance of equality for everyone. This is his first year in office, and he has a lot of things on his plate, but I know in my heart it will get done."
Service members and veterans were more skeptical, wanting real results.
Ainsley Kling, 26, just completed 7 1/2 years with the Coast Guard; after her commitment was up, she left voluntarily with the rank of petty officer, second class. She wished Obama had gone further and ordered a halt to all ongoing investigations under "don't ask, don't tell."
Kling, who is lesbian, said harassment based on sexual orientation persists, recalling a Coast Guardsman who wrote "fag" on someone else's bicycle, though neither party was believed to be homosexual.