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Obama tells gay activists he is committed to equality

By Kevin Liptak, CNN
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Sun October 2, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: President tweaks GOP hopefuls over debate incident
  • Obama says he will continue to advocate for equality
  • Many gay rights activists applaud Obama's track record
  • But some critics say he has done too little to advance same-sex marriage

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama, speaking to a gathering of gay and lesbian activists, said Saturday that he is committed to equality, citing the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as an example.

Obama said his accomplishments on gay rights issues have been substantial since he last headlined the annual National Dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, in 2009.

He acknowledged "we have more work to do," including on the issue of bullying.

The president currently supports same-sex civil unions, and has said his views on gay marriage are "evolving." He recently announced his support of the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Organizations working actively to legalize same-sex marriage say they hope Obama eventually changes his stance.

While Obama spoke Saturday about equality, he did not speak on the marriage issue.

Obama: Booing American soldier not OK

The president chided participants in a Republican presidential debate last month for not rebuking members of the audience who booed a gay soldier who asked about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"We don't believe in standing silent when that happens," Obama said of the debate incident. "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 is not politically convenient."

After the debate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said he hadn't heard the booing when the question was asked. Santorum was being asked the question when the incident occurred.

Obama spoke of growing tolerance measured, he said, by ordinary Americans:

"A father realizes he doesn't just love his daughter but also her wife."

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said after the speech that Obama reaffirmed commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. "It was a remarkable experience to see openly gay and lesbian uniformed service members in the audience be able to salute their commander in chief" about the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Obama's remarks were delivered to a key constituency that hasn't always been receptive to the president's policies and style of leadership.

"I'd like to see the president bring his message of support for the freedom to marry to a broader audience, perhaps in a conversational setting, so that all Americans can hear him talk about why marriage matters to loving gay and lesbian couples and their families," said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry. "It is important that the president lay out the case for Americans opening their hearts to the values of fairness and treating others as they would want to be treated."

Wolfson, along with other organizations advocating for legal same-sex marriages, said the Obama administration had made significant progress on some issues, but that support for marriage equality was still an important goal.

"We applaud the administration's progress, while we also encourage him to 'evolve faster' on supporting full marriage equality," Stuart Gaffney, media director for Marriage Equality USA, said Saturday. He said he wasn't aware of any opposition within his organization to the HRC's selection of Obama as their keynote speaker.

"We look forward to the day soon when our president stands with that pro-equality majority," Gaffney added.

The Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that represents gay and lesbian conservatives, said Obama's appearance Saturday night was more about politics than substantive policy change.

"President Obama's appearance at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner this evening is more emblematic of their role as an ostensibly partisan organization than a representation of the gay and lesbian community," said Christian Berle, the group's deputy executive director.

Berle said Obama's stance on gay marriage didn't match that of most Americans.

"As all Americans are becoming open to marriage equality, the president is taking a retreat," Berle said. "Instead he is turning to the gay community for money and applause.

"If the president wants to deserve all the money and adulation he has already received from the gay community, he should announce his firm support for everyone's freedom to marry," Berle said.

Saturday's event was expected to draw 3,000 gay activists, and took place at a convention center in downtown Washington. The speech was streamed live online.

A CNN/ORC International poll taken Sept. 9-11 showed 53% of Americans believe marriages between gay and lesbian couples should be considered valid. That number has steadily been rising in CNN/ORC International polls since 2008.

CNN's Athena Jones contributed to this report.

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