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Karen Ocamb Headshot

Sweet Speech, Mr. President - But Where Was the Apology? And Where's the Action?

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Let me be clear from the outset: no LGBT person I know wants President Obama to fail. There's just too much at stake. Nor does anyone think that the Obamas are in any way anti-gay or unsympathetic to the persistent and official discrimination we face everyday, as have been previous presidents and administrations.

That Obama "gets" us, in fact, makes our deep disappointment in him all the more painful. Monday's eloquent speech from the White House commemorating LGBT Pride Month and the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots is the latest case in point.

I wasn't invited so I watched the event and Obama's remarks streamed live from the White House website -- a very smart and appreciated use of technology, by the way. (See the video here and read Obama's full speech here.)

Because LGBT people have been wandering in the wilderness for so long and because Obama-the-presidential candidate promised so much, I have often been critical (including here on Huffington Post) of the shortfall between his elegant rhetoric and his teaspoon-size actions when it comes to LGBTs and people living with HIV.

But we are a nation of second chances and I have also been willing -- and eager -- to give Obama chance after chance to match his actions to his words before chalking him up as just another slick politician with silver-tongued promises.

So I watched the White House reception -- picking out people I know who got some quick face time with the president -- and I held my breath hoping that he would say a few magic words to restore the trust he's squandered.

In particular, I expected him in some way to apologize for the painfully ugly brief vigorously supporting the Defense of Marriage Act filed by his Department of Justice. And, given all the recent efforts to press him to repeal the anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- including from serious DADT advocate Sam Nunn -- I expected him to say something about how he was aware of the various reports by the Center for American Progress, the Palm Center, and the letter from Rep. Alcee Hastings and 76 congress members all offering him practical and legal ways to suspend enforcement of DADT until the law could be repealed.

Obama started off great, acknowledging the "unjust laws to overturn and unfair practices to stop." And, said the president, "I know this is painful and I know it can be heartbreaking."

He acknowledged Frank Kameny -- who was fired from his job as an astronomer for the federal government for being gay -- and recently received an official apology from John Berry, the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management. So White House apologies are not unthinkable. Obama also acknowledged the Stonewall veterans and other aging pioneers in the room - seniors who could never, ever have imagined being invited to an event in what the president said was their White House, too.

And then President Obama said this:

"So this story, this struggle, continues today -- for even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot -- and will not -- put aside issues of basic equality. (Applause.) We seek an America in which no one feels the pain of discrimination based on who you are or who you love. 



And I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It's not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.

But I say this: We have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps. And by the time you receive -- (applause.) We've been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration. (Applause.)"

Just to pause for a moment. One of the main points the Obama apologists make is that he has too much on his plate -- the economy, two wars, healthcare, energy -- and critics need to cut him a break. We just need to be patient -- he'll get to us. Well, Obama just said "even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot -- and will not -- put aside issues of basic equality." Good for him -- equality for all is just as important as all the other extraordinary challenges.

But then he gave us a glimpse of his timeline for achieving that equality -- by the time his administration is over. Eight years, assuming he wants and gets a second term.

Obama then got to the Defense of Marriage Act -- DOMA. Time stopped. I held my breath. I could hear my heart pounding louder as he talked. This was it: he's got to say something about the pain his DOJ brief caused -- and maybe how he's going to order Attorney General Eric Holder to challenge DOMA's constitutionality, just as California Attorney General Jerry Brown has repeatedly said he believes the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 violates the intent of the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the state and US Constitutions.

For weeks, we had been promised something big coming out of the White House for the Stonewall 40th anniversary -- maybe this would be it: the announcement of new action.

President Obama said:

"I've called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act to help end discrimination -- (applause) -- to help end discrimination against same-sex couples in this country. Now, I want to add we have a duty to uphold existing law, but I believe we must do so in a way that does not exacerbate old divides. And fulfilling this duty in upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law. I've made that clear."

My head exploded.

He's called on Congress? What about "calling" on Congress and dispatching a senior legislative staffer to make it happen? He has a "duty" to uphold existing law -- okay, understood. But then he smacks us with just abject cruelty: ".... but I believe we must do so in a way that does not exacerbate old divides."

What the hell does he think that DOJ brief did? Now there's real disagreement over whether the DOJ brief actually compares lesbian and gay relationships to pedophilia and incest. But minus clarification, correction and/or an apology for the weeks since the brief was filed -- the sustained impression is that the Obama Justice Department thinks -- and intends to argue -- that gay relationships are only worthy of second class status.

Words matter, Mr. President. You said so yourself: "All men are created equal... just words."

But actions speak louder than words -- one of the reasons Obama gave for getting an HIV test with his wife Michelle on National HIV Testing Day.

So there was still time in his speech for Obama to announce an action on DADT.

And then Obama said:

"And finally, I want to say a word about "don't ask, don't tell." As I said before -- I'll say it again -- I believe "don't ask, don't tell" doesn't contribute to our national security. (Applause.) In fact, I believe preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security. (Applause.) 



Now, my administration is already working with the Pentagon and members of the House and the Senate on how we'll go about ending this policy, which will require an act of Congress.


Someday, I'm confident, we'll look back at this transition and ask why it generated such angst, but as Commander-in-Chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term.

That's why I've asked the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan for how to thoroughly implement a repeal.



I know that every day that passes without a resolution is a deep disappointment to those men and women who continue to be discharged under this policy -- patriots who often possess critical language skills and years of training and who've served this country well. But what I hope is that these cases underscore the urgency of reversing this policy not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it is essential for our national security."

You've got to be kidding me. The President of the United States -- the man who swore an oath to protect and defend this country -- just said that repealing DADT is "the right thing to do" because it "weakens our national security" -- but he didn't immediately announce plans to stop enforcing it until the law can be repealed -- for the good of the country?

Stop and think about that for a second: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" actually "weakens our national security" -- but Obama is going to leave it in place, as is, until congress can get around to fixing it? If he is the great defender -- why isn't he personally calling representatives and senators and saying, "Get this done now. It's a matter of national security."

This just blows me away. My father was a colonel in the Air Force. My understanding of the military is that an officer gives an order and it is obeyed. And if the Commander-in-Chief gives an order -- everything else is swept aside to get it done. Now thanks to Sam Nunn and John Warner (and the sycophant media) asking some submarine sailor what he thought of gays in the military -- we have the lasting impression that having open gay serving in the military will hurt recruitment in the now all-volunteer military. Never mind that the military never before cared what anyone but officers thought; never mind that the military is the largest employer in the US; never mind that volunteer recruitment is so down, felons (including rapists) and those with marginal IQs are now welcome.

But Tuesday, Lt. Dan Choi -- a West Point graduate Arab linguist, had his discharge hearing. And when decorated fighter pilot and 18-year vet Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbachspoke with Obama at the White House reception, explaining the urgency in his case, and asking Obama directly for help, Obama said "We're going to get this done." But on the Rachel Maddow show, the fighter pilot explained that it probably wouldn't happen in time to save his job. Obama seemed to suggest -- and Fehrenbach seemed to agree -- that it's a "generational issue."

So forgive me for getting a little pseudo-psychological here -- but what is it with these powerful Democratic guys who apparently had such father problems they're terrified of straight old white men in uniforms?

Bill Clinton said his father was an abusive drunk and we wound up with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Not only that -- but Clinton was so afraid of judgmental military men he refused to lift the ban on needle exchange programs because "Drug Czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey said clean needles would lead to drug abuse. Clinton chose that over his own Secretary of Health and Human Services -- Donna Shalala -- who said clean needles would help prevent the spread of HIV.

And now Obama, who wrote about the impact of his absent father. What does he expect will happen if he gives the generals an order with which they personally disapprove? A coup?

Progressive political strategist Mike Lux wrote a book in which he talks about the "culture of caution" inhibiting progressive achievement. Given the anemic showing by both President Obama and the Democratically-controlled Congress, I'm more inclined to say we're in a "culture of cowardice" -- too afraid of the after-effects of Clinton's shadow to boldly go now, where we all know we're going to end up.

The question President Obama, our elected representatives and LGBT apologists need to ask is: if "equality" is a founding principle for freedom -- how do you justify withholding "equality for all" from LGBT people for any amount of time?

In fact, Obama's sweet speeches can now serve as a wake up call that while words matter, actions matter more. And as the president said, "we cannot -- and will not -- put aside issues of basic equality." This is the new action alert for 2010: What have you done for us lately?

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