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Pro-Gay Groups 'Desperate' For Obama To Take Action

Larry Whitt, who served 12 years in the Navy before leaving because he is gay, protests the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as President Obama arrives in Coral Gables, Fla., on Oct. 11.
Pat Carter
Larry Whitt, who served 12 years in the Navy before leaving because he is gay, protests the "don't ask, don't tell" policy as President Obama arrives in Coral Gables, Fla., on Oct. 11.

By now, protesters are no stranger to President Obama. And some of the most vocal people to appear at his events are gay-rights activists.

With the Justice Department's decision last week to appeal two pro-gay court rulings, they have had a lot to complain about.

Take the gay-rights group GetEqual. Its activists followed the president to a fundraiser last week in Miami at the waterfront home of basketball star Alonzo Mourning.

The group unfurled 10-foot banners in view of the White House motorcade and blew noisemakers from boats circling the party. Heather Cronk, one of the leaders, compared the protest to a military campaign.

"We staged air, land and sea actions," Cronk said.

Cronk wants the president to stop disciplinary action against gay members of the military who violate the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bars openly gay people from serving. And she's urging activists to withhold money from political candidates who disagree.

"I think it's because we're desperate," Cronk said. "We've been told by the president that he's a fierce advocate for LGBT equality, but we have yet seen very little evidence of that."

A Different Timetable

The president, who supports the repeal of don't ask, don't tell, had hoped to let the Pentagon steer a slow but steady process to get rid of it. But the courts didn't follow the president's timetable.

That's taken a toll on Obama's relationship with gay activists who helped elect him, said Richard Socarides, who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton.

"It's been a rocky relationship, certainly, to say the least," Socarides said. "Gay and lesbian voters were enthusiastic supporters of President Obama when he ran for office. And he made some significant promises to the gay constituency about what he would do when elected president. And largely he's been unable to deliver on these so far."

There are three main promises: First, repeal don't ask, don't tell. Second, overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. And third, pass a federal law to guarantee that private companies can't discriminate against gay employees.

Last week, the Obama administration signaled it would appeal pro-gay court rulings that found don't ask, don't tell and the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

To gay rights groups, that's two strikes against the White House.

But Patricia Millett, a former Justice Department lawyer, said these activists don't get it.

"One of the things people don't understand is that the Justice Department's obligation, No. 1 on its job description, is to defend the constitutionality of duly enacted acts of Congress," Millett said.

Millett said the only time the Justice Department refuses to defend a law is in cases involving a clash of power between the executive branch and Congress, or when a law is so clearly unconstitutional that there's really no reasonable argument to make for it.

"You know, in the long term, it balances out, because administrations change," she added.

Officials go to bat for the previous administration's laws and expect their successors will show them the same respect, Millett said.

For instance, the Bush administration legally defended the Family and Medical Leave Act, one of President Clinton's signature pieces of legislation. And the same could prove true for the Obama health care law and financial reforms that seem headed for the Supreme Court.

A Pragmatic Approach

Obama told an MTV audience last week that don't ask, don't tell is on the way out.

"This is not a question of whether the policy will end," he said. "This policy will end. And it will end on my watch. But I do have an obligation to make sure that I'm following some of the rules. I can't simply ignore laws that are out there."

But Socarides, the gay rights advocate, has followed Washington long enough to take a pragmatic view.

"If we don't have a partner in Washington in Barack Obama to advance a civil rights agenda, we'll find other people to work with until we get one," Socarides said.

Congressional Democrats have said they could take up the don't ask, don't tell repeal and another measure that would protect gay workers from being fired because of their sexual orientation during the lame-duck session this winter.

But GetEqual, whose supporters have followed the president at appearances all over the country, is advising activists to keep their protest banners handy, just in case they have another disappointment.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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