(Re)building bridges

(RE)BUILDING BRIDGES…. There’s obviously ample room for criticism when it comes to the speed with which the Obama administration is addressing gay rights. But it also seems obvious the White House takes the criticism seriously, and is prepared to make things right.

President Obama opened the doors of the White House to hundreds of gay and lesbian leaders yesterday, continuing his cautious outreach to a constituency that has loudly criticized his efforts on its behalf.

In an event in the East Room marking the 40th anniversary of the riots surrounding New York’s Stonewall Inn, where gay patrons rose up against a police raid in Greenwich Village, Obama sought to reassure guests that he had not abandoned the issues important to them. He also drew a parallel between the progress gays and lesbians have made in recent decades and the struggles of black Americans to win equality.

Reading the transcript of Obama’s remarks, it was arguably the most forceful pro-gay speech ever delivered by an American president. Joe Solmonese of Human Rights Campaign, who has been sharply critical of the administration of late, talked after the event about his renewed optimism. “There certainly was the appropriate and inspiring acknowledgment that he made of what this community has been through,” he said, adding that the event helped reassure gays and lesbians “that the work continues, that the commitment is still there.”

Much of the president’s speech was devoted to acknowledging the history and struggles, not only of those involved with the Stonewall events of 40 years ago, but also of the larger community. Obama also made note of the steps his administration has already taken after just five months in office, before recommitting the White House to repealing “the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” passing the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, expanding hate crimes law, “rescinding the discriminatory ban on entry to the United States based on HIV status,” and ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

He also sounded like a president who “gets it.”

“[T]he riots at Stonewall gave way to protests, and protests gave way to a movement, and the movement gave way to a transformation that continues to this day. It continues when a partner fights for her right to sit at the hospital bedside of a woman she loves. It continues when a teenager is called a name for being different and says, ‘So what if I am?’ It continues in your work and in your activism, in your fight to freely live your lives to the fullest.

“In one year after the protests, a few hundred gays and lesbians and their supporters gathered at the Stonewall Inn to lead a historic march for equality. But when they reached Central Park, the few hundred that began the march had swelled to 5,000. Something had changed, and it would never change back.

“The truth is when these folks protested at Stonewall 40 years ago no one could have imagined that you — or, for that matter, I — would be standing here today. So we are all witnesses to monumental changes in this country. That should give us hope, but we cannot rest. We must continue to do our part to make progress — step by step, law by law, mind by changing mind. And I want you to know that in this task I will not only be your friend, I will continue to be an ally and a champion and a President who fights with you and for you.”

Obama didn’t ask for the “patience” of gay right supporters, because as he noted, it would be no more appropriate than those who “counsel[ed] patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.”

Instead, the president asked to be judged on the promises on which his administration delivers. Stay tuned.