Gay leaders offered only a lukewarm reception Wednesday night for President Obama’s statement, in his State of the Union address, that he would work for the repeal of the military’s discriminatory policy against gays.
The statement came near the end of his address.
“This year,” he said, “I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”
Even before the president finished the sentence, a cheer broke out from somewhere in the chamber and some members of Congress rose to applause. Television cameras flashed on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were sitting with considerable stoicism, as they did throughout the speech. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was standing and applauding.
The reaction of gay leaders fell somewhere in-between.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network issued a statement applauding the president’s remarks, calling for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“We very much need a sense of urgency to get this done in 2010,” said the group. “We call on the President to repeal the archaic 1993 law in his defense budget currently now being drafted, that is probably the only and best moving bill where DADT can be killed this year. “ The group also said that both “more attention and leadership” are needed to win repeal.”
Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese posted a statement saying the president sent “a clear message” against the policy and adding, as did Servicemembers Legal, that the issue “will required continued leadership” from President Obama and Congressional allies.
But other reaction was more than guarded.
Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, issued a statement saying “We have heard promises before about ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’” While Cathcart said Lambda was happy to hear President Obama’s remark, he added that “the time has finally come to fulfill that promise.”
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said “the time for broad statements is over.”
“He must provide a concrete blueprint for his leadership and action moving forward—this includes his willingness to stop the discharges happening on his watch until Congress can fulfill its responsibility to overturn the law.”
“We wish we had heard him speak of concrete steps tonight,” said Carey.
Richard Socarides, a longtime Democratic activist who worked in the White House of President Clinton, said he found the lack of a game plan and timetable on the issue to be “extremely troubling.”
Charles Moran, a spokesperson for Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay political group, was much more harsh.
“President Obama is more concerned about protecting the rights of terrorists,” said Moran, “than he is about the rights of gay and lesbian Americans who are putting their lives on the line every day fighting to preserve peace and democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and operate small businesses that are the backbone of the American economy.”
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked Valerie Jarrett, a senior policy advisor to the president, when and how the president planned to follow through on his promise regarding Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell. Jarrett said the president would “begin the process right away” and that he was “very clearly” committed to the promise. Jarrett said she was also “very heartened” by the applause in the chamber in reaction to the president’s statement of commitment.
The president’s statement was no surprise. News of his intention to express support for repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” filtered to news media from Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin said he heard of the plan from “the Pentagon.”
In his speech, President Obama made note of the nation’s “incredible diversity” and on the Constitution’s “notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; that if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.” He said his administration is prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination and noted, “We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate.” The latter statement referred to the law long sought by national gay political groups to enable the federal government to help fund prevention of and prosecution for crimes that target victims for sexual orientation or gender identity, among other things. The president signed that law in October.
There was quiet inclusion of gay people in another way during Wednesday night’s event. A gay businessman from Indiana was seated in the balcony with First Lady Michelle Obama as one of her guests.
According to the Indianapolis Star newspaper, Trevor Yager was one of 23 citizens invited by the White House to sit with the First Lady during the speech. He told the paper the White House invited him at the suggestion of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. A White House press release that went out identifying the guests did not identify Yager as gay.
Yager, a native of Michigan, operates a small advertising firm in Indianapolis that he says has benefited from President Obama’s stimulus legislation. His own company, Trendy Minds, has added seven employees in the past year and taken on four new accounts, according to the Star.
The company’s website indicates it does “branding consultation” for Penguin Group’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide series and work for NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick’s website.
The Republican response to the Democratic president’s State of the Union came from Virginia’s new governor Bob McConnell.
Rather than the folksy, at home delivery of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal—which did not play well last year—McDonnell staged his speech in the State House of Virginia, with an enthusiastically applauding chamber, creating a sort of miniature State of the Union look. Standing behind McDonnell, visible to the camera trained on his podium, was one black woman, one Asian man, one white woman, and one white, male service member in uniform.
Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain issued a statement following President Obama’s speech reacting specifically to the call for repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, calling it a “mistake.”
“This successful policy has been in effect for over fifteen years,” said McCain’s statement, “and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels. … At a time when our Armed Forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy.”
This is not the first time a president has expressed support for a gay civil rights issue during a State of the Union. Democratic President Bill Clinton called for support of hate crimes legislation during his 1999 address.
“Discrimination or violence because of race or religion, ancestry or gender, disability or sexual orientation is wrong and it ought to be illegal,” said Clinton during the address. “Therefore, I ask Congress to make the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act the law of the land.” The hate crimes legislation passed 10 years later.