Saturday night President Obama charmingly delivered a rather bleak message to the gay community on the eve of its latest march on Washington. In a speech to the world's largest gay political group, the Human Rights Campaign, Obama essentially said two things: I'm with you. But I can't do much for you.
He said the first part with remarkable comfort for a straight man, the kind of effortless understanding that gay people don't always get at home, school or work, and certainly not from most politicians. "Tonight, somewhere in America, a young person let's say a young man will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he has held as long as he can remember," the President said. I'm sure he didn't write those words, but in that one sentence, he accurately and movingly defined the painful confusion that begins most gay lives. He went on: "Soon, perhaps, he will decide it's time to let that secret out. What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends, his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us on the kind of society we engender." The audience of some 2,000 mostly major gay donors and activists, many of whom have been disappointed with Obama's slow movement on gay issues stood and cheered.
As usual with this President, all the cadences were right. "It is a privilege to be here tonight to open for Lady Gaga," he ad-libbed, again a deft and knowing line for an audience probably as eager to hear her performance as his. During one clamorous ovation, Obama said, simply, "I love you back."
Obama patted himself on the back for his party's passage earlier in the week of a a hate-crimes bill that, for the first time, includes gay and transgender people. And he used the opportunity to tell gay critics who have expected so much of him to express what he expects of them. The hate-crimes bill, he said, had become law only because those who believed in it had thoroughly educated the public about why it was important. "Countless activists and organizers never gave up," he said. "You held vigils. You spoke out year after year, Congress after Congress."
Obama is right, in a civics-class sort of way, because social change can't occur if it's forced from the top down. But that's also a convenient argument for him, since it defers responsibility from his office.
Obama did pledge as he has before to end the Pentagon's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. But once again he said nothing specific about how he plans to do that and didn't acknowledge that he already has the statutory power to instruct the Pentagon that investigating service members' sexuality is not in the best interest of the armed forces. Also, he said that gay relationships can be "just as real and admirable" as straight relationships, but he did not say gay couples should be treated equally. Obama, after all, still opposes equal marriage rights.
Outside the convention center, anger simmered as gays prepared for today's march. Roughly 300 gathered at a Washington restaurant yesterday so many that scores spilled onto the street outside to hear speakers angrily denounce a political system they said was run by corporate interests. "Obama lost me," said Zach Rosen, 28, who came to Washington from Philadelphia. "He took a lot of gay dollars and gay votes, and then it was like Clinton unkept promises."