Return to Transcripts main page


Obama Remarks to Gay Rights Activists

Aired October 10, 2009 - 20:08   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Don Lemon here at the CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta. There you see him, the president of the United States about to address the HRC, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights group in the country. He's doing this tonight in Washington D.C. Let's listen, everyone, to President Barack Obama.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Please, thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Please, you're making me blush.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We love you, Barack.

OBAMA: I love you back. To Joe Solmonese, who is doing an outstanding job on behalf of HRC, to my great friend and supporter, Terry Bean, co-founder of HRC, Representative Patrick Kennedy, David Hiebner, the ambassador designee to New Zealand and Samoa, John Berry, our director of OPM who's doing a great job, Nancy Sutley, chairman of Council on Environmental Quality, Fred Huckberg (ph), chairman of Export Import Bank, and my dear friend, Tipper Gore, who's in the house, thank you so much all of you.

It is a privilege to be here tonight and to open for Lady Gaga. And I've made it. I want to thank the Human Rights Campaign for inviting me to speak and for the work you do every day in pursuit of equality on behalf of the millions of people in this country who work hard in their jobs and care deeply about their families and who are gay lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

For nearly 30 years, you've advocated on behalf of those without a voice. And that's not easy. And despite the real gains that we've made, there's still laws to change and there's still hearts to open. There are still fellow citizens, perhaps neighbors, even loved ones, good and decent people, who hold fast to out won arguments and old attitudes, who fail to see your families like their families, who would deny you the rights most Americans take for granted. And that's painful and it's heartbreaking.

And yet, you continue leading by the force of the arguments you make and by the power of the example that you set in your own lives, as parents, and friends, as PTA members and church members, as advocates and leaders in your communities, and you're making a difference. That's the story of the movement for fairness and equality. And not just for those who are gay but for all of those in our history who've been denied the rights of our citizenship, for all who've been told that the full blessing and opportunities of this country were closed to them. The story of progress sought by those with little influence or power, by men and women who brought about change through quiet, personal acts of compassion and defiance wherever and whenever they could.

It's the story of the Stonewall Protests, when a group of citizens with a few options -- when a group of citizens with few options and fewer supporters stood up against discrimination and helped inspire a movement. It's the story of an epidemic that decimated a community and the gay men and women who came to support one another and save one another, who continue to fight this scourge, who have demonstrated before the world that different kinds of families can show the same compassion in a time of need. And it's a story of the Human Rights Campaign and the fights you fought for nearly 30 years, helping to elect candidates who share your values, standing against those who would enshrine discrimination into our Constitution, advocating on behalf of those living with HIV-AIDS and fighting for progress in our capital and across America.

This story, this fight continues now. And I'm here with the simple message. I'm here with you in that fight.


OBAMA: Or even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot and we will not put aside issues of basic equality. I greatly appreciate the support I've received from many in this room. I also appreciate that -- I also appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough. I want to be honest about that because it's important to be honest among friends.

Now, I said this before. I'll repeat it again. It's not for me to tell you to be patient any more than it was for others to council patience to African-Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago. But I will say this, we have made progress and we will make more.

And I think it's important to remember that there is not a single issue that my administration deal with on a daily basis that does not touch on the lives of the LGBT community. We all have a stake in reviving this economy. We all have a stake in putting people back to work. We all have a stake in improving our schools and achieving quality, affordable health care. We all have a stake in meeting the difficult challenges we face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For while some may wish to define you solely by your sexual orientation or gender identity alone, you know and I know alone that none of us wants to be defined by just one part of what makes us whole. You're also parents worried about your children's futures. You're spouses and fear that you or the person you love will lose a job. You're workers worried about the rising cost of health insurance. You're soldiers. You are neighbors. You are friend. And most importantly, you are Americans who care deeply about this country and its future.

(APPLAUSE) OBAMA: So I know you want me working on jobs and the economy and all the other issues that we're dealing with. But my commitment to you is unwavering even as we wrestle with these enormous problems. And while progress may be taking longer than you'd like as a result of all that we face, and that's the truth, do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach.

My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians whether in the office or on the battlefield. You will see a time in which we as a nation finally recognize relationships between two men or two women just as real and admirable as relationships between a man and a woman.


OBAMA: You will see a nation that's valuing and cherishing these families as we build a more perfect union, a union in which gay Americans are an important part. I am committed to these goals. And my administration will continue fighting to achieve them.

And there's no more poignant or painful reminder of how important it is that we do so than the loss experienced by Dennis and Judy Shepherd whose son, Matthew, was stolen in a terrible act of violence 11 years ago. In May, I met with Judy, who's here tonight with her husband. I met her in the Oval Office and I promised her that we were going to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill, a bill named for her son.

This struggle has been long. Time and again we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed but the Shepherds never gave up. They turned tragedy into an unshakeable commitment. Countless activists and organizers never gave up. You held vigils. You spoke out. Year after year, Congress after Congress, the House passed the bill again this week. And I can announce that after more than a decade, this bill is set to pass and I will sign it into law.


OBAMA: It's a testament to the decade long struggle of Judy and Dennis, who tonight will receive a tribute named for somebody who inspired so many of us, named for Senator Ted Kennedy, who fought tirelessly for this legislation. And it's a testament to the Human Rights Campaign and those who organized and advocated. And it's a testament to Matthew and others who have been the victims of attacks.

Not just meant to break bones but to break spirits. Not meant just to inflict harm but to instill fear. Together, we will have moved closer to that day when no one has to be afraid to be gay in America, when no one has to fear walking down the street holding the hand of the person they love.

But we know there's far more work to do. We're pushing hard to pass an inclusive employee non-discrimination bill. For the first time ever, an administration official testified in Congress in favor of this law. Nobody in America should be fired because they're gay, despite doing a great job and meeting their responsibilities. It's not fair. It's not right. We're going to put a stop to it.

(APPLAUSE) OBAMA: And it's for this reason that if any of my nominees are attacked, not for what they believe but for who they are, I will not waiver in my support because I will not waiver in my commitment to ending discrimination in all its forms.


OBAMA: We are reinvigorating our response to HIV-AIDS here at home and around the world. We're working closely with the Congress to renew the Ryan White Program. And I look forward to signing it into law in the very near future. We are rescinding the discriminatory ban on entry into the United States based on HIV status. The regulatory process to enact this important change is already underway.

And we also know that HIV-AIDS continues to be a public health threat in many communities, including right here in the District of Columbia. Jeffrey Crowley, the director of the Office of National AIDS Policy recently held a forum in Washington, D.C. and is holding forums across the country to seek input as we craft a national strategy to address this crisis.

We are moving ahead on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We should not -- we should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve this country. We should be celebrating their willingness to show such courage and selfishness on behalf of their fellow citizens especially when we're fighting two wards.


OBAMA: We cannot afford -- we cannot afford to cut from our ranks people with the critical skills we need to fight any more than we can afford for our military's integrity to force those willing to do so into careers encumbered and compromised by having to live a lie.

So I'm working with the Pentagon, its leadership and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's my commitment to you.


OBAMA: It is no secret that issues of great concern to gays and lesbians are ones that raise a great deal of emotion in this country. And it's no secret that progress has been incredibly different. We can see that with the time and dedication it took to pass the hate crimes legislation. But these issues all go to the heart of who we are as a people.

Are we a nation that can transcend old attitudes and worn divides? Can we embrace our differences and look to the hopes and dreams that we share? Will we uphold the ideals on which this nation was founded, that all of us are equal, that all of us deserve the same opportunity to live our lives freely and pursue our chance of happiness? I believe we can. I believe we will. And that is why -- that's why I support ensuring that committed gay couples have the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country. I believe strongly in stopping laws designed to take rights away and passing laws that extend equal rights to gay couples. I required all agencies in the federal government to extend as many federal benefits as possible to LGBT families that the current law allows. And I've called on Congress to repeal the so- called Defense of Marriage Act and to pass the Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act.


OBAMA: And we must all -- and we must all stand together against divisive and deceptive efforts to feed people's lingering fears for political and ideological gain. For the struggle waged by the Human Rights Campaign is about more than any policy we can enshrine into law. It's about our capacity to love and commit to one another. It's about whether or not we value as a society that love and commitment. It's about our common humanity, our willingness to walk in someone else's shoes.

Imagine losing a job not because of your performance at work but because of your relationship at home. Imagine worrying about a spouse in the hospital with the added fear that you'll have to produce a legal document just to comfort the person you love. So imagine the pain -- imagine the pain of losing a partner of decades and then discovering that the law treats you like a stranger. If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that there are too many who do not yet know in their lives or feel in their hearts, the urgency of this struggle.

And that's why I continue to speak about the importance of equality for LGBT families and not just in front of gay audiences. That's why Michelle and I have invited LGBT families to the White House to participate in events like the Easter egg roll because we want to send a message. And that's why it's so important that you continue to speak out, that you continue to set an example, that you continue to pressure leaders, including me, and to make the case all across America.

So tonight, I'm hopeful because the activists I see in this room, because of the compassion I've seen all across America and because of the progress we have made throughout our history, including the history of the movement for LGBT equality.

And soon after the protests at Stonewall 40 years ago, the phone rang in the home of a soft spoken elementary school teacher named Jean Manford. It was 1:00 in the morning and it was the police. Now, her son, Morty, had been at the Stonewall the night of the race. Ever since, he had felt within him a new sense of purpose. So when the officer told Jean that her son had been arrested, which was happening often to gay protestors, she was not entirely caught off guard. And then the officer added one more thing. And, you know, he's homosexual. Well, that police officer sure was surprised when Jean responded, "Yes, I know. Why are you bothering him?" OBAMA: And not long after, Jean would be marching side by side with her son through the streets of New York. She carried a sign that stated her support. People cheered. Young men and women ran up to her, kissed her and asked her to talk to their parents. And this gave Jean and Morty an idea.

And so, after that march, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Protests, amidst the violence and the bittery, all of a difficult time for our nation, Jean and her husband, Jules, two parents who loved their son deeply, formed a group to support other parents and in turn to support their children as well.

At the first meeting Jean held in 1973, about 23 people showed up. But slowly, interest grew. Morty's life tragically was cut short by AIDS but the cause endured. And today, the organization they founded for parents, families, and friends of lesbians and gays has more than 200,000 members and supporters. It's made a difference for countless families across the America.


OBAMA: And Jean would later say, "I considered myself such a traditional person. I didn't even cross the street against the light. But I wasn't going to let anybody walk over Morty." That's the story of America, of ordinary citizens organizing, agitating and advocating for change, of hope stronger than hate, of love more powerful than any insult or injury, of Americans fighting to build for themselves and their families a nation in which no one is a second class citizen, in which no one is denied their basic rights, in which all of us are free to live and love as we see fit.

And tonight, somewhere in America, a young person...


OBAMA: ...tonight somewhere in America, a young person, let's say, a young man, will struggle to fall asleep, wrestling alone with a secret he's held as long as he can remember. And soon, perhaps, he will decide it's time to let that secret out. What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us, on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.

I believe the future is bright for that young person. For a while, there will be setbacks and bumps along the road. The truth is that our common ideals are a force far stronger than any of division that some might sew. These ideals, when voiced by generations of citizens, are what it possible for me to stand here today. These ideals are what made it possible for the people in this room to live freely and openly when for most of history that would have inconceivable. That's the promise of America, HRC. That's the promise we're called to fulfill day by day, law by law, changing mind by mind. That is the promise we are fulfilling.

Thank you for the work you're doing. God bless you and God bless America. LEMON: Okay, you have seen it. Live, President Barack Obama addressing the Human Rights Campaign, this country's largest rights organization for gay people.

The president really got -- you know, gave a rousing speech there and was warmly received by the crowd. So let's talk about what he said because he said a lot. So joining us now is our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, and also Steve Hildebrand. Steve Hildebrand is a former deputy campaign manager for President Barack Obama, also openly gay. He joins us from Sioux Falls, South Dakota tonight.

First to Jessica, what do you make of it?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you can see by the reaction he got, it was an enormously impassioned defense of gay rights and a clear statement that this president is committed to these issues not in a second term, if there is one, but in this term, to getting some of those key concerns accomplished.

The one thing I'll tell you, Don, people going into this speech told me what they wanted to hear from the president was a timeline on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. There are many other issues that matter to this community. but for whatever reason, this is one where they really wanted to hear a timeline. He committed to overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He did not give them a timeline. I suspect that could one area where there's criticism, but overall, a very positive reaction to this speech. And I think the community will be largely pleased.

LEMON: And Steve, Jessica brings up a very good point. He said that he would end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And all the comments I've been getting here on Twitter of everyone saying, "When, when, when? He's promised that for a long time. When is it going to happen?" But he also did say hate crime legislation, as soon as it hits his desk, he's going to sign it.

STEVE HILDEBRAND, FORMER OBAMA DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, Don, anybody who's dealt with Congress knows that you don't just wave a magic wand and they pass legislation and put it on the president's desk. This is a huge challenge for all of us. We need to put pressure on Congress to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, to repeal the Defensive Marriage Act, get employment nondiscrimination. All of these issues need to get to the president's desk. The sooner the better The sooner we get them there, the greater chance we'll have for equality in this country.

LEMON: Steve Hildebrand, Jessica Yellin, thank you very much. I'm Don Lemon at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

Stay here for the 10:00 p.m. hour where I'll have a full analysis of the president's speech.