Obamas Welcome Gay Rights Activists to White House

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama entertain Monday in the White House's East Room. (Getty Images)

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama entertain Monday in the White House's East Room. (Getty Images)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a reception in honor of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Pride Month on June 29, 2009, in the White House. The First Couple greeted approximately 250 LGBT leaders in the East Room in a meeting billed as a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in New York City and LGBT Pride month in the United States. During his remarks, President Obama acknowledged gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, to whom the government recently apologized for firing in 1957, because he was gay.

Rea Carey, Executive Director if the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an attendee at the White House gathering, had solicited questions from NGLTF members to ask President Obama. Her first-hand report follows:

“Last week I asked all of you to lend me your voice as I prepared to attend the White House event in honor of the 40th anniversary of Stonewall this past Monday.

“‘Inspired’ doesn’t even begin to sum up how I felt reading the messages you wrote.

“I stayed up late on Sunday reading your words, and I felt so proud and honored to take your voices with me to the White House. Some of you sent impassioned pleas to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the Defense of Marriage Act, while others described in heartbreaking detail the discrimination you’ve faced in the hospital or at work.

“When President Obama and the First Lady stepped off the podium following the president’s remarks, I was among the first they met. I knew I would only have a few seconds before he mo’ed on. I held out the binder that contained reflections on our lives, the words of our community, and I said to him, “Mr. President, these are hundreds of messages to you from LGBT people and allies across the country. This is what they want you to know.’ He looked at the binder and thanked me.

“You – better and more eloquently than any politician or talking head – told the brave story of your life and exposed the simple fact that discrimination and inequality affect you personally and deeply. And so many of you, in no uncertain terms, LGBT or straight ally, reminded our president of the most basic tenet of our democracy: to fight for and uphold equality and justice for all. The Task Force will remain ever-vigilant, watching this administration’s actions as opposed to its words, and as we make progress in fighting for our community, please know that you – your words, your life – are part of making it happen. You are making a difference!

  • “Thanks to all of you who took the time to write to the president. I was honored to deliver your messages and am committed as always to keep fighting for justice and equality for our LGBT community.”

Those attending the White House event from California included:

  • David Bohnett, Beverly Hills, CA is the Chairman of the David Bohnett Foundation, a non-profit, grant-making organization with the stated goal of “improving society through social activism.” In 1994 he along with John Rezner co-founded GeoCities, an Internet-based media and e-commerce company, publicly traded on NASDAQ and subsequently acquired by Yahoo! Inc. He currently serves as CEO of OVGuide, a company funded by his venture firm. He also manages a portfolio of investments through his investment company, Baroda Ventures, and sits on the boards of several civic, philanthropic and privately held ventures.
  • Christopher Caldwell, Los Angeles — An attorney

Curtis Chin, Los Angeles – National Board Chair of Asian Pacific Americans for Progress (APAP) – a national network of Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders and grassroots activists.

  • Roberta Conroy, Santa Monica, – Democratic Party fund raiser
  • Stampp Corbin, San Diego, one of the leading gay supporters of President Barack Obama and the former Co-Chair of the Obama LGBT Leadership Council during the presidential campaign, announces he will not attend the Democratic Party’s LGBT fundraiser scheduled next week. Corbin, who is a San Diego City Commissioner and one of the most prominent black gay elected officials in the country, is only the latest high-profile gay not to support the event due to the Justice Department’s inflammatory motion to dismiss a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.
  • Wilson Cruz, West Hollywood, – You may remember the viral video Prop 8: The Musical by Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman that took the internet by storm at the end of 2008 starring Jack Black as Jesus along with Margaret Cho, Jennifer Lewis and John C. Riley. The Musical was performed live in West Hollywood during one of many protests organized in dozens of cities against the federal Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA). Wilson Cruz, who portrayed Jesus, got to show what great pipes he has to people who may not be aware of his career in musical theater including “Rent” on Broadway.
  • Chad Griffin, Los Angeles – Founding partner of political and communications strategy firm Griffin|Schake, has spent his career taking on the toughest fights against the most entrenched, well-financed interests like Big Tobacco, Big Oil and the right wing to shape the policy debate around some of the nation’s most important issues, including equal rights, clean energy, universal health care, global climate change, stem cell research and early childhood education. A veteran of the Clinton White House communications team, Griffin was the youngest staffer ever to serve in the West Wing.
  • Richard Llewellyn, Los Angeles
  • Robert Llewellyn, Los Angeles
  • Rosemary Llewellyn, Los Angeles
  • Claire Lucas, Corona del Mar – Contributor to the Democratic National Committee
  • Skip Paul, Beverly Hills – Self-employed entertainment executive
  • Troy Perry, Founder Metropolitan Community Churches
  • Frank Pond, Los Angeles – An attorney and contributor to the Democratic National Committee
  • Dr. Sylvia Rhue, National Black Justice Coalition Sylvia Rhue is the Director of Religious Affairs with the National Black Justice Coalition. Previously, she was employed as the California Freedom to Marry Coalition Manager, the Director of Equal Partners in Faith, and she worked with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. She also worked at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center as the Assistant Director of Counseling, and then as the Policy and Public Affairs Advocate. A native Californian, she graduated from UCLA with a Masters Degree in Social Work and received a Doctorate in Human Sexuality from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. She is the first African American to receive this degree. Dr. Rhue is the co-producer of the award-winning film “All God’s Children” and she is an expert on the “ex-gay” movement, which she calls “the cult of the annihilation of the authentic self”. Dr. Rhue is a noted public speaker, a documentarian, a religious scholar and a writer.
  • Eric Stern, UC Berkeley School of Law
  • Phill Wilson, CEO Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles – Phill is the face and the force behind the Black AIDS Institute, a non-profit which does mobilization and advocacy around HIV and AIDS in the black community. His innovative think tank has published a profound report, “AIDS in Black America” which gets to the heart of the matter and offers sometimes out-of-the-box solutions. He recently attended the annual convention for the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the largest organization for black newspapers in the United States. For many years, there has been a reluctance to discuss HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia in the black community. Wilson, who is openly gay and HIV positive, tells it like it is.

Transcript of President Obama’s June 29, 2009, remarks at the White House/LGBT gathering:

President Obama:

It’s good to see so many friends and familiar faces, and I deeply appreciate the support I’ve received from so many of you. Michelle appreciates it and I want you to know that you have our support, as well. And you have my thanks for the work you do every day in pursuit of equality on behalf of the millions of people in this country who work hard and care about their communities – and who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

Now this struggle, I don’t need to tell you, is incredibly difficult, although I think it’s important to consider the extraordinary progress that we have made. There are unjust laws to overturn and unfair practices to stop. And though we’ve made progress, there are still fellow citizens, perhaps neighbors or even family members and loved ones, who still hold fast to worn arguments and old attitudes; who fail to see your families like their families; and who would deny you the rights that most Americans take for granted. And I know this is painful and I know it can be heartbreaking.

And yet all of you continue, leading by the force of the arguments you make but also by the power of the example that you set in your own lives – as parents and friends, as PTA members and leaders in the community. And that’s important, and I’m glad that so many LGBT families could join us today. For we know that progress depends not only on changing laws but also changing hearts. And that real, transformative change never begins in Washington.

Indeed, that’s the story of the movement for fairness and equality – not just for those who are gay, but for all those in our history who’ve been denied the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; who’ve been told that the full blessings and opportunities of this country were closed to them. It’s the story of progress sought by those who started off with little influence or power; by men and women who brought about change through quiet, personal acts of compassion and courage and sometimes defiance wherever and whenever they could.

That’s the story of a civil rights pioneer who’s here today, Frank Kameny, who was fired. Frank was fired from his job as an astronomer for the federal government simply because he was gay. And in 1965, he led a protest outside the White House, which was at the time both an act of conscience but also an act of extraordinary courage. And so we are proud of you, Frank, and we are grateful to you for your leadership.

It’s the story of the Stonewall protests, which took place 40 years ago this week, when a group of citizens – with few options, and fewer supporters – decided they’d had enough and refused to accept a policy of wanton discrimination. And two men who were at those protests are here today. Imagine the journey that they’ve traveled.

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; and who continue to fight this scourge; and who demonstrated before the world that different kinds of families can show the same compassion and support in a time of need – that we all share the capacity to love.

So this story, this struggle, continues today – for even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot – and will not – put aside issues of basic equality. We seek an America in which no one feels the pain of discrimination based on who you are or who you love.

And I know that many in this room don’t believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.

But I say this: We have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps. And by the time you receive. We’ve been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.

Now, while there is much more work to do, we can point to important changes we’ve already put in place since coming into office. I’ve signed a memorandum requiring all agencies to extend as many federal benefits as possible to LGBT families as current law allows. And these are benefits that will make a real difference for federal employees and Foreign Service Officers, who are so often treated as if their families don’t exist. And I’d like to note that one of the key voices in helping us develop this policy is John Berry, our director of the Office of Personnel Management, who is here today. And I want to thank John Berry.
I’ve called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act to help end discrimination to help end discrimination against same-sex couples in this country. Now, I want to add we have a duty to uphold existing law, but I believe we must do so in a way that does not exacerbate old divides. And fulfilling this duty in upholding the law in no way lessens my commitment to reversing this law. I’ve made that clear.

I’m also urging Congress to pass the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, which will guarantee the full range of benefits, including health care, to LGBT couples and their children. My administration is also working hard to pass an employee non-discrimination bill and hate crimes bill, and we’re making progress on both fronts. Judy and Dennis Shepard, as well as their son Logan, are here today. I met with Judy in the Oval Office in May and I assured her and I assured all of you that we are going to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill into law, a bill named for their son Matthew.

In addition, my administration is committed to rescinding the discriminatory ban on entry to the United States based on HIV status. The Office of Management and Budget just concluded a review of a proposal to repeal this entry ban, which is a first and very big step towards ending this policy. And we all know that HIV/AIDS continues to be a public health threat in many communities, including right here in the District of Columbia. And that’s why this past Saturday, on National HIV Testing Day, I was proud once again to encourage all Americans to know their status and get tested the way Michelle and I know our status and got tested.

And finally, I want to say a word about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” As I said before – I’ll say it again – I believe “don’t ask, don’t tell” doesn’t contribute to our national security. In fact, I believe preventing patriotic Americans from serving their country weakens our national security.

Now, my administration is already working with the Pentagon and members of the House and the Senate on how we’ll go about ending this policy, which will require an act of Congress.

Someday, I’m confident, we’ll look back at this transition and ask why it generated such angst, but as Commander-in-Chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term. That’s why I’ve asked the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan for how to thoroughly implement a repeal.

I know that every day that passes without a resolution is a deep disappointment to those men and women who continue to be discharged under this policy – patriots who often possess critical language skills and years of training and who’ve served this country well. But what I hope is that these cases underscore the urgency of reversing this policy not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is essential for our national security.

Now, even as we take these steps, we must recognize that real progress depends not only on the laws we change but, as I said before, on the hearts we open. For if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that there are good and decent people in this country who don’t yet fully embrace their gay brothers and sisters — not yet.

That’s why I’ve spoken about these issues not just in front of you, but in front of unlikely audiences – in front of African American church members, in front of other audiences that have traditionally resisted these changes. And that’s what I’ll continue to do so. That’s how we’ll shift attitudes. That’s how we’ll honor the legacy of leaders like Frank and many others who have refused to accept anything less than full and equal citizenship.

Now, 40 years ago, in the heart of New York City at a place called the Stonewall Inn, a group of citizens, including a few who are here today, as I said, defied an unjust policy and awakened a nascent movement.

It was the middle of the night. The police stormed the bar, which was known for being one of the few spots where it was safe to be gay in New York. Now, raids like this were entirely ordinary. Because it was considered obscene and illegal to be gay, no establishments for gays and lesbians could get licenses to operate. The nature of these businesses, combined with the vulnerability of the gay community itself, meant places like Stonewall, and the patrons inside, were often the victims of corruption and blackmail.

Now, ordinarily, the raid would come and the customers would disperse. But on this night, something was different. There are many accounts of what happened, and much has been lost to history, but what we do know is this: People didn’t leave. They stood their ground. And over the course of several nights they declared that they had seen enough injustice in their time. This was an outpouring against not just what they experienced that night, but what they had experienced their whole lives. And as with so many movements, it was also something more: It was at this defining moment that these folks who had been marginalized rose up to challenge not just how the world saw them, but also how they saw themselves.

As we’ve seen so many times in history, once that spirit takes hold there is little that can stand in its way. And the 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.

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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.

Thanks very much, everybody. God bless you. Thank you. But thank you very much, all, for being here. Enjoy the White House. Thank you.

Carl Matthes

Published by the LA Progressive on July 8, 2009
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About Carl Matthes

Carl Matthes is a native of Los Angeles and has lived in Eagle Rock for 45 years. He is the current president of UGLA, Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance, a grassroots organization in Northeast Los Angeles which provides a support system for gay men and lesbians and education for individuals and the community-at-large on the true nature of homosexuality. He is a former columnist and a current advisor to the Lesbian News, the oldest lesbian publication in America, which is owned and published by his sister, Ella. He was editor of the GLAAD/LA (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) newsletter, a former GLAAD National Board member and served as a GLAAD/LA representative on the LGBT/LAPD Advisory Board. Carl has also been a Board member of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

In July, 2008, Carl was legally married to Carl Johnson, his partner of 45 years, by Los Angels City Councilmember Jose Huizar. It was a unique gay/lesbian double ceremony as Carl's sister Ella and her partner Gladi were also married by Jose.