WASHINGTON -- President Obama forcefully called for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act on Saturday night at the annual Human Rights Campaign fundraising dinner, but he did not come out in support of marriage equality, as some hoped he would do.
The 3,000 attendees at the dinner, which took place at the Washington Convention Center, gave the president multiple standing ovations when he touted the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples and spoke out against the bullying of LGBT youth.
The most electric reaction, however, came when Obama sharply criticized the GOP presidential candidates for staying silent when audience members at a debate booed a gay soldier who asked a question about DADT.
"We don't believe in the kind of smallness that says it's okay for a stage full of political leaders -- one of whom could end up being the president of the United States -- being silent when an American soldier is booed. We don't believe in that," said Obama to loud cheers and a standing ovation.
"We don't believe in standing silent when that happens. We don't believe in them being silent since. You want to be commander in chief? You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it's not politically convenient. We don't believe in a small America. We believe in a big America -- a tolerant America, a just America, an equal America -- that values the service of every patriot."
Notably at Saturday's dinner, there was a table filled with servicemembers -- both active-duty and retired -- wearing their uniforms. HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz said it was a first for active-duty members to do so, since it's also the first post-DADT dinner.
Last week, Obama also chastised the audience at the GOP debate for booing the soldier, but this is the first time that he forcefully went after the candidates for their silence.
Obama referenced the remarks he gave at the annual HRC dinner two years ago, when he acknowledged the frustration that many LGBT activists had with his administration. He said it wasn't appropriate to tell them to wait anymore than it was for "others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago."
"We've got more work ahead of us. But we can also be proud of the progress we've made these past two and a half years. Think about it," he said, mentioning the repeal of DADT, new hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples and hate crimes legislation protecting LGBT individuals.
"I need your help to fight for equality, to pass a repeal of DOMA, to pass an inclusive employment non-discrimination bill, so that being gay is never again a fireable offensive in America," said Obama. "And I don't have to tell you, there are those who don't want to just stand in our way, but want to turn the clock back, who want to return to the days when gay people couldn't serve their country openly. Who reject the progress we've made. Who ... want to enshrine discrimination in state laws and constitutions -- efforts that we've got to work hard to oppose, because that's not what America should be about. We're not about restricting rights and restricting opportunity."
Obama also cited the White House summit he held to fight youth bullying, saying it was an issue his administration would continue to press.
"Together, we also have to keep sending a message to every young person in this country who might feel alone or afraid because they're transgender," he said. "They may be getting picked on or pushed around because they're different. We've got to make sure they know there are adults they can talk to, that they are never alone, that there is a whole world waiting for them, filled with possibility. ... And I want all those kids to know the president and the first lady is standing right by them every inch of the way. I want them to know we love them and care about them, and they're not by themselves."
The dinner was the last one under the helm of HRC President Joe Solmonese, who has led the organization since 2005 and recently announced he would be stepping down.
"No president has done more to improve the lives of LGBT people than President Obama," said Solomnese in his introduction of the president. "No longer will gay and lesbian couples be kept apart when we are at our most vulnerable, at the hospital, thanks to President Obama. He kept his word, and he ushered in the end of DADT while others promised to reopen the wounds of that discriminatory policy. And unlike those who want to keep same-sex couples as strangers under federal law, our president has called the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and indefensible."
Also attending the event were Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), musician Cyndi Lauper, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, former Second Lady Tipper Gore and actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly referred to Tipper Gore as the former First Lady. She is the former Second Lady.
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