President Obama attended a fundraiser in New York Thursday night with one of the most important factions of his big money base: Gay donors. With gay marriage headed toward legalization in New York state, the issue of Obama’s continued, yet wobbly, opposition to gay marriage was sure to come up. And it did.
Over chants of “marriage,” Obama kept mostly to his prepared remarks. The exchange follows below.
Ever since I entered into public life, ever since I have a memory about what my mother taught me, and my grandparents taught me, I believed that discriminating against people was wrong. I had no choice. I was born that way. (Laughter and applause.) In Hawaii. (Applause.) And I believed that discrimination because of somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity ran counter to who we are as a people, and it’s a violation of the basic tenets on which this nation was founded. I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country. (Applause.)
Now, there was such a good recitation earlier by Neil that I feel bad repeating it, but let me just — it bears repeating. (Laughter.) This is why we’re making sure that hospitals extended visitation rights to gay couples, because nobody should be barred from their bedside their partner — the beside of their partner in a moment of pain, or a moment of need. Nobody should have to produce a legal contract to hold the hand of the person that they love.
It’s why we launched the first comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy, providing a road map not only to providing treatment and reducing infections — (applause) — but also embracing the potential of new, groundbreaking research that will help us bring an end to this pandemic.
That’s why I ordered federal agencies to extend the same benefits to gay couples that go to straight couples wherever possible. That’s why we’re going to keep fighting until the law no longer -–
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Marriage.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Marriage. Marriage. Marriage.
THE PRESIDENT: I heard you guys. (Laughter.) Believe it or not, I anticipated that somebody might — (Laughter and applause.)
Where was I? (Laughter.) That’s why we’re going to keep on fighting until the law no longer treats committed partners who’ve been together for decades like they’re strangers.
That’s why I have long believed that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act ought to be repealed. It was wrong. It was unfair. (Applause.) And since I taught constitutional law for a while, I felt like I was in a pretty good position to agree with courts that have ruled that Section 3 of DOMA violates the Constitution. And that’s why we decided, with my attorney general, that we could no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA in the courts. (Applause.)
Now, part of the reason that DOMA doesn’t make sense is that traditionally marriage has been decided by the states. And right now I understand there’s a little debate going on here in New York — (laughter) — about whether to join five other states and D.C. in allowing civil marriage for gay couples. And I want to — I want to say that under the leadership of Governor Cuomo, with the support of Democrats and Republicans, New York is doing exactly what democracies are supposed to do. There’s a debate; there’s deliberation about what it means here in New York to treat people fairly in the eyes of the law.
And that is — look, that’s the power of our democratic system. It’s not always pretty. There are setbacks. There are frustrations. But in grappling with tough and, at times, emotional issues in legislatures and in courts and at the ballot box, and, yes, around the dinner table and in the office hallways, and sometimes even in the Oval Office, slowly but surely we find the way forward. That’s how we will achieve change that is lasting -– change that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible.
Now, let me just say this. There were those who doubted that we’d be able to pass a hate crimes law. Occasionally I got hollered at about that. After a decades-long fight, we got it done — bring us closer to the day when nobody is going to be afraid to walk down the street because they’re gay or transgender. (Applause.)
There were those said we couldn’t end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And I remember having events where folks hollered out at events. (Laughter.) But we passed the repeal. We got it done. We’re now moving forward with implementing it. (Applause.) So we’re no longer going to demand brave and patriotic Americans live a lie to serve their country.
Folks like Captain Jonathan Hopkins, who led a platoon into northern Iraq during the initial invasion, and quelled an ethnic riot, and earned a Bronze Star with valor. He was discharged, only to receive emails and letters from his soldiers saying if they had known he was gay all along — that they had known he was gay all along and they still thought he was the best commander they had ever had.
That’s how progress is being won — here in New York, around the country. Day by day, it’s won by ordinary people who are striving and fighting and protesting for change, and who, yes, are keeping the pressure up, including pressure on me. And by men and women who are setting an example in their own lives — raising their families, doing their jobs, joining the PTA, singing in church, serving and sacrificing for this country overseas, even as they are not always granted the full rights of citizenship they deserve here at home.
Last year, I received a letter from a teenager growing up in a small town, and he told me he was a senior in high school, and that he was proud to be the captain of a club at his school, and that he was gay. And he hadn’t told his parents. He hadn’t come out. He was worried about being mocked or being bullied. He didn’t think it was safe to, in his words, “openly be myself.” But this 17-year-old also looked towards the day when he didn’t have to be afraid; when he didn’t have to worry about walking down the hallway. And he closed his letter by saying, “Everyone else is considered equal in this country. Why shouldn’t we be?” (Applause.)
So, yes, we have more work to do. Yes, we have more progress to make. Yes, I expect continued impatience with me on occasion. (Laughter.) But understand this — look, I think of teenagers like the one who wrote me, and they remind me that there should be impatience when it comes to the fight for basic equality. We’ve made enormous advances just in these last two and a half years. But there are still young people out there looking for us to do more, to help build a world in which they never have to feel afraid or alone to be themselves. And we know how important that is to not only tell them that it’s going to get better, but to also do everything in our power to ensure that things actually are better.
I’m confident that we will achieve the equality that this young person deserves. I’m confident that the future is bright for that teenager and others like him, and that he can have the life that he wants and that he imagines.
There will be setbacks along the way. There will be times where things aren’t moving as fast as folks would like. But I know that he’ll look back on his struggles, and the struggles of many in this room, as part of what made change possible; part of what it took to reach the day when every single American, gay or straight or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, was free to live and love as they see fit. (Applause.)
And we can look at the progress we’ve made in the last two years, to the changes that were led not by Washington, but by folks standing up for themselves, or for their sons or for their daughters, fighting for what’s right. Not just change on behalf of gay Americans, but for everybody looking to fulfill their version of the American Dream — whether it’s the students working their way through college, or the workers heading to factories to build American cars again, or the energy entrepreneurs testing bold ideas, the construction crews laying down roads, the small business owners and scientists and inventors and builders and all those Americans who faced hardship and setbacks but who never stopped believing in this country -– it’s capacity to change; who are helping each and every day to rebuild this nation so that we emerge from this period of struggle stronger and more unified than ever before.
And that’s the story of progress in America. That’s what all of you represent — of the stubborn refusal to accept anything less than the best that this country can be. And with your help, if you keep up the fight, and if you will devote your time and your energies to this campaign one more time, I promise you we will write another chapter in that story. And we are going to leave a new generation with a brighter future and a more hopeful future. And I’ll be standing there, right there with you.
Thank you. God bless you. (Applause.) God bless the United States of America. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. (Applause.)