Obama Will Address HRC Dinner on Eve of March

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 5, 2009

President Barack Obama will deliver the keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign's 13th Annual National Dinner on Saturday, October 10, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy will present the first-ever Edward M. Kennedy National Leadership Award to Judy and Dennis Shepard.

"We are honored to share this night with President Obama, who has called upon our nation to embrace LGBT people as brothers and sisters," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. "It is fitting that he will speak to our community on the night that we pay tribute to his friend and mentor Senator Edward Kennedy, who knew that as president, Barack Obama would take on the unfinished business of this nation--equal rights for the LGBT community, and for every person who believes in liberty and justice for all."

Obama is not the first sitting president to speak to an HRC gathering. Bill Clinton did so in 1997.

The president has had an up-and-down relationship with gay activists and gay groups.

In 2007, he said, "At its core, this issue is about who we are as Americans," Obama said a 2007 statement on gay issues. "It's about whether this nation is going to live up to its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect."

But Richard Socarides, a Clinton Administration advisor on LGBT issues, complained to AP, "Eleven months after his election, he has failed to deliver on any of his commitments to gay Americans, but even worse has been his refusal to engage around these issues.

"What he needs to do now is engage and deliver," said Socarides. "Spend some of his political capital on ending the gay military ban, a hugely symbolic issue. And with no intellectually sound arguments left against it, come out squarely for gay marriage equality."

Most recently, he received praise for including gay families in his message sent out on Family Day.

But some court proceedings have produced anger. Just last month, his administration argued against letting legally married gay couples receive federal marriage benefits. Obama had extended a few benefits, including opening the government's long-term care insurance, to gay partners of federal employees and allowing federal employees to use their sick leave to tend to a gay partner or the partner's children.

He nominated a lesbian to head the Equality Opportunity Commission. And his appointment of former Gay-Lesbian Straight Education Network founder Kevin Jennings to be the safe schools czar has become a lightning rod for the right.

No issue, however, is as contentious as the military's policy on gay servicemembers serving openly. Because of the president's position as commander of chief, the symbolic importance of getting rid of "Dont Ask Don't Tell," and the importance of the military in American life, this has become a key federal issue.

On Jan. 9, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs answered "yes" when asked whether the administration would end a policy that has seen the dismissal of more than 12,000 troops after their sexual orientation was revealed.

Obama's top military advisers are broadly hinting that the president will, indeed, tackle the highly controversial issue. But they refuse to give a timetable. Meanwhile, Congress is scheduling hearings and may force the president's hand.

Whether or not the president directly addresses such issues makes his appearance at the HRC gala such a newsworthy event--even casting aside the historic importance of a sitting president addressing such a dinner. His appearance takes on additional importance, coming as it does on the eve of the National Equality March on Washington.

And there will be pickets--only they won't be anti-gay groups. Instead of Fred Phelps or the National Organization for Marriage, Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network and Dallas-based Queer Liberation are organizing to protest the president's appearance.

"The Obama administration has likened LGBT relationships to incest and bestiality," said Queer Liberaction co-founder Blake Wilkenson. "He cited his 'Christian beliefs' for the reason why he now opposes equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. He refuses issue a stop-loss order to prevent purges of lesbian and gay soldiers. If we are going to get real change out of this White House, we need to make demands of this President. As the great anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass put it, 'Power concedes nothing without a demand.'"

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).