President Obama departs after speaking Saturday at the Human Rights Campaign's… (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — President Obama joined the nation’s largest gay rights group in celebrating gays and lesbians being legally allowed to serve openly in the military, saying that “we believe in an equal America that values the service of every patriot.”
Obama’s remarks came at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual gala dinner on Saturday night, an event that came just a few weeks after the demise of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was repealed by Congress last December and came to an official end on Sept. 20.
Warning that some would overturn strides for equality, Obama declared, “We believe in a big America. A tolerant America. An equal America that values the service of every patriot. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.”
Addressing a sold-out dinner that organizers said drew 3,100 people, Obama began by joking that last week he had “some productive, bilateral talks with your leader, Lady Gaga.”
He moved on to what he said his administration, with the help of groups such as the HRC, had achieved for the gay community — and what was left to do. In addition to changes in the military, Obama hailed the expansion of the federal hate crimes law and a provision that hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid give visitation rights to gay partners.
“Every single American – gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – deserves to be treated equally in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our society. It’s a pretty simple proposition,” Obama said.
“We have a ways to go in the struggle,” he added, saying some people still felt like second-class citizens and had to lie to keep jobs.
Obama condemned bullying against young gay people and lashed out against the federal Defense of Marriage Act, saying that just like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it should be relegated to “history books.”
And he took a shot at Republican presidential candidates, who stood silent at a recent debate when a soldier asked a question about "don't ask, don't tell" was met with boos from the audience.
“You want to be commander in chief, you can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States,” Obama said.
Joe Solmonese, the president of the HRC, introduced Obama by saying the HRC had accomplished “more in the last two years than we have in the previous 40.”
Solmonese, who steps down next year, said leading up to the dinner that “unquestionably, the overarching theme of the night is going to be a celebration of the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“It’s been a long road, and this is the first occasion the president has to be with members of the [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community and celebrate together,” he said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was to receive the “Ally for Equality Award” at the dinner. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who is running for a Senate seat in 2012 and would be the first openly gay senator, was to speak after Obama.
Greyson Chance and Cyndi Lauper provided the entertainment. One man wore a glittering crown; another a kilt. Some working the event wore T-shirts that read “Born this Way.”
Among the veterans on hand was retired Staff Sgt. Eric Fidelis Alva, 40, of San Antonio, Texas, who stepped on a land mine in Iraq and lost a leg early, the Marines' first serious casualty of the war. He later battled to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Obama previously addressed an HRC dinner two years ago, when a warm reception belied consternation among some that he was not moving fast enough on gay-rights issues.
Today the frustration among gay activists is Obama’s support for civil unions but not same-sex marriage. He’s unlikely to budge before the 2012 election.
Solmonese, in an interview, noted that Obama “has said to us, in many different ways, in many different settings, that he is ‘evolving’ on the issue of marriage, and he has encouraged us to stick with him, work with him and keep pushing him.
“In my mind, you only evolve in one direction. You evolve in the direction of [same-sex] marriage, not away from marriage.”
Obama is the second president to address a Human Rights Campaign national dinner, after President Clinton first did it in 1997.
The president spoke for 18 minutes. He skipped the meal and musical acts at the event, held at the Washington Convention Center.