Inside Gotham Hall in New York City Tuesday night, there were cheers and several standing ovations as President Obama addressed LGBT donors to the Democratic National Committee excited by news that he will sign an executive order to protect LGBT employees of federal contractors. Outside, Immigration Equality, GetEQUAL and several immigration groups called for Obama to grant administrative relief to undocumented immigrants and stop deportations that tear families apart, including LGBT DREAMers who have known no other home.
Obama was introduced by Edie Windsor, 85, and Roberta Kaplan, the plaintiff and lawyer in the lawsuit that resulted in the Supreme Court overturning a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act. Interestingly, Obama delivered his 17-minute keynote at the gala on Broadway on the same day that the Senate made history by approving two openly gay Obama nominees for federal judgeships. Tickets ranged from $1,200 to $32,400, the Washington Blade reports, for which Obama electrified the audience of LGBT Democrats with soaring rhetoric, celebration and inducement to do more for others.
It may also be the most remarkable personal record of just how far the President himself has evolved from the days when, as a presidential candidate in 2008, he told Rick Warren at Saddleback Church: “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian … it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”
“The day that the Supreme Court issued its ruling, United States v. Windsor, was a great day for America, a clear victory for human decency and equality and justice and freedom. So we thank you for your courage and your inspiration,” Obama told the crowd of about 550 to much applause.
He also joked with emcee Jesse Tyler Ferguson, offering congratulations on both his real and his Modern Family weddings. “Mitch and Cam finally tied the knot. Michelle and the girls were crying.” He then offered a toast to newly-weds Eric Johnson and Mark Parker who were married just before the event. “They decided to make this their after-party—pretty cool. If you’ve got a glass, raise it for Eric and Mark—a lifetime of health and happiness to them,” said the President of the United States. (See the full transcript of his remarks here.)
Noting that June is Pride Month, Obama ticked off the “remarkable” accomplishments over the last 12 months including having nine more states gain the freedom to marry, the NFL drafting Michael Sam, the Postal Service making history by putting an openly gay person on a stamp—“the late, great Harvey Milk smiling from ear to ear.”
Contrast that to just 10 years ago when same sex marriage was the biggest issue dividing the country, Obama said. “In fact, the Republican Party built their entire strategy for 2004 around this issue. You remember? They calculated that if they put constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on state ballots, they’d turn out more voters, they’d win. And they, frankly, were right. People flocked to the polls. Those amendments were on the ballots in 11 states. They passed in every single one,” he said. “Now, here’s a good bet. hey’re not going to try the same strategy in 2014.”
However, Obama said, “despite the great work of some incredibly talented and courageous lawyers, it is important to understand it’s not just the laws that are changing—it’s hearts and minds.”
In words that would thrill assassinated Harvey Milk, who said the most important thing for a gay person to do was to come out - the President said it wasn’t just young people who were prompting changes in attitudes.
“[W]hat’s been remarkable is the way Americans of all age groups are increasingly embracing marriage equality. They understand love is love. And for many people whose minds have changed, it was love that did it—love for the child or the grandchild, or the friend or the coworker who sat down one day and held their hands and took a deep breath and said, ‘I’m gay,’” Obama said. “Almost everybody in this room was that child or grandchild or friend or coworker at some point. And you may not have known it at the time—it may have seemed like an individual act—but in those moments when you summoned that courage and reached out with that hopeful love, you were doing it for everybody. And that’s why I’m here tonight, to say thank you for helping make America more just and more compassionate.”
Obama quasi-joked that he had received “support and guidance” from many in the august room. But “[s]ometimes you guys were a little impatient. Sometimes I had to say, will you just settle down for a second, we’ve got this.” There are now more protections for LGBT Americans than in any administration in history.
But, Obama said, celebration must not yield to complacency. “Progress doesn’t just have to be fought for, it has to be defended,” he said, noting that the Texas Republican Party’s state platform endorses gay conversion therapy in 2014, among other battles. “And most of all, there are still Americans out there who are vulnerable and alone, and still need our support. So we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep fighting. We’ve got to keep fighting for the human rights of people around the world -- to those who face violence and intimidation every single day, and who live under governments that have made the existence of anybody who’s LGBT illegal. We need to send a message to those folks. I want them to hear from the President of the United States: We believe in your dignity and your equality, and the United States stands with you.”
That fight also includes people with HIV/AIDS. Obama said he called Ryan Murphy after seeing The Normal Heart to tell him to how much he admired it. “It’s more than just a story from our past. It’s a reminder that we have to stay vigilant in the fight against HIV/AIDS, which still claims the lives of too many Americans—especially low-income Americans; especially the minority LGBT community that doesn’t have all the resources, doesn’t have all the information they need. It still takes a toll.”
And, without specifically naming President Ronald Reagan, President Obama recognized that “there was a government that failed to recognize that disease in time. And that can happen again if we’re not careful.”
Obama was repeatedly interrupted with enthusiastic applause, but he received a huge standing ovation when he talked about fighting for equality in the workplace.
“We have laws that say Americans can’t be fired from their jobs because of the color of their skin or for their religion or because of a disability. But every day, millions of Americans go to work knowing that they could lose their job, not because of anything they did, but because of who they are. That is not right. It is wrong.”
Obama noted that Congress has considered workplace protections for LGBT employees “for decades” but shockingly enough,” the House has refused to act after the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would help businesses attract the best and brightest.
“And that’s why I’ve directed my staff to prepare for my signature, an executive order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Obama said. “Because in the United States of America, who you are and who you love shouldn’t be a fireable offense. It would be better, by the way, if Congress passed a more comprehensive law that didn’t just cover federal contractors. And we need to keep working on that, so don’t take the pressure off Congress.”
But while the Executive Order is “helpful,” Obama said, “it doesn’t reach everybody that needs to be reached. Congress needs to start working again, so let’s make sure that we keep the pressure up there.”
While the long-awaited Executive Order was cause for much celebration – it was Obama’s closing comments inexorably linking the LGBT struggle with the on-going struggles of other communities that prompted a sustained, excited standing ovation:
This is a country where no matter who you are, or what you look like, or how you came up, or what your last name is, or who you love -- if you work hard and you take responsibility, you should be able to make it. That’s the story of America. That’s the story of this movement: People who stand up and come out and march, and organize, and fight to expand the rights we enjoy and extend them to other people -- people who work against the odds to build a nation in which nobody is a second-class citizen, everybody is free to be who they are; and that you’re judged based on are you kind and competent and work hard, and treat each other with respect, and are a team player and look after your community, and care and love and cherish your kids. That’s how we’re supposed to be judged.
That’s the fight that brought all of us here today. That’s what made it possible for me to stand up here as your President. It’s what gave many people in this room the freedom to live their lives freely. It’s what should inspire us to keep working to make sure all our children grow up in an America where differences are respected and even celebrated, and where love is love.
And it is also why those of us who in the past might have not always enjoyed the full liberty that this amazing country of ours has to offer, that we’ve got to be thinking about others who are still struggling.
That’s why this community has to be just as concerned about poor kids, regardless of sexual orientation.
That’s why this community should be fighting for workers who aren’t getting paid a minimum wage that’s high enough.
That’s why this community has to show compassion for the illegal immigrant who is contributing to our society and just wants a chance to move out of the shadows.
That’s why this community should be concerned about equal pay for equal work, straight or gay.
That’s why this community has to be concerned about the remaining vestiges of racial discrimination.
If you’ve experienced being on the outside, you’ve got to be one to bring more folks in even once you are inside. That’s our task. That’s our job. That’s why we’re here tonight.
Meanwhile, outside, some of the very people Obama was talking about staged a protest against the man some immigration activists call “the Deporter-in-Chief” - the Obama administration has deported more than 2 million undocumented immigrants, more than any other in history.
“Many of those deportations have been LGBTQ immigrants, who face extraordinary discrimination within the detention system and who are often deported to countries in which they face harassment, abuse, violence and sometimes, death due to their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the protesting coalition said in a press release. The hailed Executive Order “will not impact the estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBTQ immigrants who live in the shadows each day for fear of deportation under President Obama's administration.” (Photo courtesy GetEQUALl)
Immigration Equality's pro bono trans asylum client, Roxana, spoke about surviving extreme transphobic violence and having to flee Honduras for the United States to save her life. Roxana spoke with the Washington Blade, with Immigration Equality’s Diego Ortiz translating. She said she was demonstrating because “deportations are not acceptable for our community.”
“The reason we’re here today is to say that we cannot have one more LGBT deportation,” she said. “For transgender women like me, deportations can be a death sentence.”
"As someone who is gay and undocumented, I know what it is like to live most of your life in hiding -- our community lives under the constant threat of deportation," Immigration Equality’s Marco Quiroga said in the press release. "I work side by side with the most vulnerable members of our community who cannot return to their country of birth out of fear that they will be harassed, abused, attacked, and in some cases, killed. Roxana is one of the thousands of LGBT immigrants who would be in great danger if deported due to the lack of action from our elected leaders. Today, we call upon President Obama to take immediate action and make LGBT-inclusive administrative relief for undocumented immigrants a reality. We simply can't wait."