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Gay activists impatient with Obama, Congress

/ Source: The Associated Press

Frustrated gay-rights leaders want President Barack Obama to be far more forceful in supporting their political goals and vow to step up lobbying efforts in hopes of seeing campaign promises fulfilled.

The two most contentious proposals on the activists' agenda — both backed by Obama during his election campaign — would extend federal recognition to same-sex partnerships and repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars gays from serving openly in the military.

The president says he wants to work with Congress to achieve both goals, but many gay-rights activists contend he is moving too slowly and hesitantly. The frustration was eased only slightly, if at all, when Obama signed a memorandum Wednesday extending limited benefits to the same-sex partners of gay federal employees.

"The atmospherics were fine, but the substance was zero," Ethan Geto, a New York-based activist and political consultant, said of the signing ceremony.

Obama's problem with the gay community, Geto said, stems largely from the high expectations raised by his campaign rhetoric.

"He said the gay-rights agenda would be a priority for his administration — and he received an enormous amount of support from the community," Geto said. "Now people are beginning to really question his commitment. ... Gay donors are running away in droves."

Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry, which campaigns nationally for gay marriage rights, said he remains optimistic over the long term because the American public "is ready for change."

"What we need now is leadership from the president, Congress and state officials to deliver that change," he said. "I'm frustrated and disappointed that the administration has not yet delivered on the vision we share for a more equal America."

'We're working hard'
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, the longest serving of the three openly gay members of Congress, said many activists placed unrealistic expectations on Obama and underestimated the need to lobby lawmakers in Congress relentlessly in the style of the powerful National Rifle Association.

"It's not that Obama doesn't want to do it, but you need the votes," Frank said. "You can't complain about the president until you've called your senator."

Leaders of some national gay-rights organizations acknowledged Frank's point.

"We're working hard to secure the needed votes," said Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "All these issues will take work on the part of Congress as well as the president."

The gay-rights bill closest to a vote in Congress would expand the federal hate-crimes law to cover anti-gay violence. It has passed the House and is awaiting a Senate vote, but backers are proceeding cautiously, wary of possible Republican maneuvers to derail it.

Later this year, action is possible on a bill that would outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

There's no timetable, however, for the pending bill to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Obama says he wants to build support for the change among military commanders before urging Congress to move ahead.

'Anger in our community'
Gay-rights leaders concede that Obama has his hands full with wars, recession, health care reform and other challenges, but they nonetheless feel slighted — compared to other liberal constituencies — by a president who, during the campaign, said he would be a "fierce advocate" for gay rights.

"Show us you are indeed that fierce advocate," said Jody Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Huckaby said he was particularly dismayed last week when Obama's Justice Department defended the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to reject other states' legal gay marriages and prohibits federal recognition of any same-sex partnerships. As candidate, Obama promised to repeal the act.

On the other hand, some conservative activists continue to decry Obama's commitment to a "radical homosexual agenda" and have launched protests against some of the gays appointed to administration jobs. The prime target at the moment is Kevin Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, who has been named to oversee the Education Department's Office of Safe & Drug Free Schools.

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the responsibility for inaction on gay-rights priorities lies with both Obama and Congress.

"It's shocking to realize we still live a country where gay and lesbian people can't serve openly in the military, have no federal protections in the private workplace, and same-sex couples are entitled to no benefits under federal law," Minter said.

"There's so much anger in our community. We expect the president and Congress to move forward."

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