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Obama Vows Unqualified Support for Gay-Rights Agenda

by Steven Thomma

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama vowed his unwavering support for the full gay rights agenda Saturday night, saying that he'll push Congress to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the audience at the Human Rights Campaign annual dinner in Washington October 10, 2009. (REUTERS/Richard Clement) He also said that he'll work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman, to guarantee that gay and lesbian couples get the same benefits as straight couples, and to ban anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.

"There are still laws to change and hearts to open," he told the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group. "This fight continues. And ... I'm here with you in that fight," he said to applause and cheers.

It's not an easy fight, he said, because questions of equal rights for gays and lesbians still "raise a great deal of emotion in this country." But he said "these issues go to the heart of who we are as a people."

He acknowledged that he hasn't delivered as fast as gay rights activists want.

"I appreciate your support," he said. "I also appreciate that many of you don't think progress has come fast enough. ... It's not for me to ask you to be patient," he said, any more than it was right for anyone 50 years ago to ask African-Americans to be patient.

Joe Solmonese, the president of the group, introduced Obama with praise for his commitment to the gay rights agenda.

"We have never had a stronger ally in the White House - never," Salmonese said.

But he added that many gays and lesbians are eager to see quicker results from a president who has long been on their side, and he noted that many will march in the capital on Sunday to demand action.

"This is ... a time of great impatience," he said, "and thousands will take to the streets of Washington tomorrow to express just that."

Obama insisted that some progress has been made on the gay agenda, noting last Thursday's vote in the House of Representatives to expand federal "hate" crimes laws to include additional penalties for crimes based on "sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability." The federal government now calls for tougher penalties in crimes motivated by a victim's race, color, religion or national origin.

"This bill is set to pass, and I will sign it into law," Obama said.

On the question of gays serving openly in the military, he said that he's working to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy adopted in 1993 that allows gays to serve as long as they keep their sexual orientation secret.

"I will end 'don't ask, don't tell.' That's my commitment to you," Obama said, to loud applause.

Last year, more than 600 people were forced out of the armed services under the policy.

"We are moving ahead on 'don't ask don't tell." Obama said. "We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who've stepped forward to serve America ... especially at a time we're fighting two wars."

He said he's working with the Pentagon and congressional leaders to enact legislation repealing the policy, apparently referring to a bill introduced by Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., that so far has 176 cosponsors.

Obama also put the White House squarely behind efforts to protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination. "Nobody in America should be fired because they're gay ... We're going to put a stop to it," he said.

For gay and lesbian couples, he said he's already ordered the federal government to grant as many of the benefits offered married couples as possible under current law. And he said he's prodding Congress to do more.

"I've called on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage act and pass the domestic partners benefits bill," he said.

Despite his vows, Obama did not spell out how much political capital he would, or could, use to push the gay rights agenda at a time he's reworking the war strategy in Afghanistan, pushing for a health care overhaul and struggling to save a climate bill in the Senate.

"I understand the president has a crowded agenda, but I have been serving under this law for 16 years," said Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, before the speech. He's an Iraq war hero who is set to be discharged under the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, and he went into the evening looking for a more solid commitment from the president.

"We have no doubt President Obama intends on correcting the mistake made in 1993 with the passage of DADT," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the group. "But we've seen no action, and the clock is ticking. A clear timeline from this White House and Congress is urgently needed."

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