WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama promised gay and lesbian voters he would repeal a law banning their open service in the military, would do away with a federal marriage law and would champion their causes from the White House. In his first five months, he's taken incremental steps that have little real effect and left some people feeling betrayed.
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But he's still willing to take money from a reliably Democratic constituency — he was sending Vice President Joe Biden to a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Thursday evening with gay and lesbian donors.
Some gay donors called for a boycott after Obama's Justice Department, in a court filing, compared gay marriages to incest.
"I don't think it's an appropriate time to be raising money. No one is happy now," said Richard Socarides, who advised former President Bill Clinton on gay issues and did not plan to attend the event. "On gay rights, the country is already in the age of Obama, but he's governing from the Clinton era."
Federal benefits for same-sex partners
Obama issued a presidential memorandum that expands some federal benefits to same-sex partners, but not health benefits or pension guarantees. He has allowed State Department employees to include their same-sex partners in certain embassy programs already available to opposite-sex spouses.
But that remains far short of his campaign rhetoric.
"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."
Since then, he publicly has committed himself to repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they don't disclose their sexual orientation or act on it. On Jan. 9, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs answered "yes" when asked whether the administration would end the policy. But as president, Obama hasn't taken any concrete steps urging Congress to rescind the Clinton-era policy that even some former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have described as flawed.
Obama pledged during the campaign to work for repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits how state, local and federal bodies can recognize partnerships and determine benefits.
In a letter sent to gay-rights groups in February 2008, the president said "I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) — a position I have held since before arriving in the U.S. Senate."
But lawyers in his administration defended the law in a court brief. White House aides said they were only doing their jobs to back a law that is on the books.
At the time, even Democrats in his party criticized the move.
"I was profoundly disappointed by this action, particularly coming from this administration," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay nonincumbent to win election to Congress.
Even so, Baldwin and other high-profile gay and lesbians and their allies still planned to attend Biden's fundraiser. The minimum donation was $1,000 and some tickets went as high as $30,400. The event was expected to draw 160 people, although the DNC was not releasing estimates on how much money the event would net, especially given some high-profile defections.
Human Rights Campaign grass-roots chief Marty Rouse, Gay and Lesbians Advocates and Defenders projects director Mary Bonauto and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe all withdrew. Several other high-profile activists also did not intended to participate, hoping to pressure Obama to make good on his promises now.
The White House plans an East Room reception on Monday for gay and lesbian advocates to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Greenwich Village demonstrations at the Stonewall Tavern in New York City. The demonstrations are viewed as the start of the modern gay rights movement.
"Unless the president on Monday articulates a strong action plan, and is willing to do it with cameras rolling, it is going to go from bad to worse," said Socarides, the Clinton adviser.
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