On Gay Issues, Obama Asks to Be Judged on Vows Kept

The New York Times
President Obama and Michelle Obama at a reception Monday to mark a 1969 uprising that led to the modern push for gay rights.

June 30, 2009

On Gay Issues, Obama Asks to Be Judged on Vows Kept

WASHINGTON — President Obama defended his policies on gay rights on Monday, telling an audience of gay men and lesbians that he remained committed to overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule and that he expected to be judged "not by promises I've made but by the promises that my administration keeps."

Mr. Obama made his remarks at a reception in the East Room of the White House to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the 1969 uprising that gave rise to the modern gay rights movement. Joined by his wife, Michelle, the president directly addressed criticism from gay and lesbian leaders that he had not been a forceful advocate for them.

"I know that many in this room don't believe progress has come fast enough, and I understand that," Mr. Obama said. "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.

"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."

Many lesbians and gay men supported Mr. Obama's election, but their leaders have grown increasingly impatient and critical of him as president.

Mr. Obama campaigned on a promise of repealing two policies that are anathema to them: the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and "don't ask, don't tell," which bars gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The president has been accused of dragging his feet on both, but especially on "don't ask, don't tell" because he could use his executive authority to order the military not to enforce the rule.

In his remarks on Monday, Mr. Obama affirmed his opposition to the policy, saying he believed that "preventing patriotic Americans from serving our country weakens our national security." But he said he thought the best course was to work with the Pentagon and lawmakers to overturn it.

"As commander in chief," Mr. Obama said, "I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term."

The explanation seemed to assuage some of his critics.

Richard Socarides advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues and has been deeply critical of Mr. Obama. Mr. Socarides, who watched the event on the White House Web site because he was not invited, said afterward that while he disagreed with the president's strategy, he respected him for "articulating why and how" he was making his decisions.

"This will buy him some time," Mr. Socarides said, "but he'll have to deliver."

For at least one person at the reception, time is of the essence.

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, an Air Force officer who is facing expulsion proceedings after someone informed his superiors that he is gay, attended the reception as a guest of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is challenging the policy. Colonel Fehrenbach said he introduced himself to the president after Mr. Obama spoke.

"I explained that I'm being thrown out as we speak, and that there was a sense of urgency for me," Colonel Fehrenbach said. "He looked me in the eye and he said, 'We're going to get this done.' "

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