"Obama is doing the best he can," said Judy Shepard, whose son, Matthew, was beaten senseless, tied to a fence and left for dead outside Laramie, Wyo., 11 years ago. "You can't just go in there and say, 'This is what we're going to get done.' Congress is busy with other things."
Judy Shepard's son, Matthew, was beaten senseless, tied to a fence and left for dead outside Laramie, Wyo., 11 years ago.
Each house of Congress previously approved the legislation five times. Each time the bill was dropped from final versions under pressure from conservatives or a veto threat from President George W. Bush.
It took a dozen years and a Democratic sweep in Washington to overcome those hurdles. The Senate on Thursday passed a Defense Department bill that includes the measure to extend federal protections to people victimized not only because of their race or religion but also because of sexual orientation.
[On Monday, White House officials said that President Obama planned to sign the bill on Wednesday at a ceremony attended by Judy Shepard.]
"Changing, adding, amending laws is a process," Shepard said. "You have to have the right votes, talk to the right people. I knew it was going to happen eventually. If you eliminate the gray area [of the Bush years], I think we've done pretty good."
Indeed, on Wednesday two Cabinet departments announced gay-friendly actions. Housing and Urban Development proposed rules to ensure gay families are not discriminated against in public housing and said it would conduct the first-ever study of anti-gay discrimination in housing sales and rentals. Health and Human Services said it would establish the first national resource center to help local agencies provide services to elderly gays and lesbians.
Those moves are welcome but mostly tinkering around the edges, say some gay rights activists. Earlier this month, tens of thousands marched in Washington to demand faster action by Democratic leaders to lift the military's ban on openly gay service members and support marriage equality for same sex couples. They argued that while victories on gay marriage in New England and Iowa point to a thaw in public opinion, only action on the federal level will lead to true equality for gays.
The evening before, Obama told the Human Rights Campaign that he will end the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He also said he would prod Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to ignore same-sex nuptials legal in other jurisdictions and defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
"It's not for me to tell you to be patient," Obama told the nation's largest and most mainstream gay advocacy group. "But I will say this: We have made progress and we will make more."
Not enough, said Andy Towle of the gay blog Towleroad. "Once again a lot of talk and no real actual progress," he said, adding that in nine months in office Obama has put gay issues on the back burner. "When there's silence for that long, people get impatient. He's obviously got a lot on his plate but he can obviously multitask as well."
John Aravosis of Americablog agreed. The White House, he said, has "no plan to move ahead" on gay concerns.
"The president has incredible power -- he is not the queen of England," said Aravosis. "Once the bad guys leave, you expect the good guys to do things."
Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay Massachusetts lawmaker who dismissed the march as "a waste of time at best," said in an interview that activists have ignored reality. There are enough votes in the House to pass laws barring anti-gay workplace discrimination, adding domestic partner benefits for gay federal workers and perhaps even overturning the military ban, he said. But there still aren't the needed 60 votes in the Senate.
"People should lobby their senators," said Frank, who was widely quoted as saying of the marchers that the only thing they put pressure on was "the grass" on the National Mall.
He said gay rights activists should behave more like the National Rifle Association or AARP, the gun and seniors lobbies that are expert at mobilizing members to pressure lawmakers at home.
"It's not glamorous. It's not exciting. It's hard work," Frank said.
He also said it is "nonsense" to charge the White House with doing nothing on gay issues. Congress will likely vote on a bill to bar workplace discrimination against gays before the end of the year, he continued, and predicted lawmakers would tackle "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign -- a favorite target of bloggers and younger gay activists -- said his group is working behind the scenes with the White House and in congressional districts to win over skeptical lawmakers. "There's a lot going on," he said.
Richard Socarides, an adviser on gay issues in the Clinton White House, said the hate crimes bill will be an important symbolic victory. But on the big issues -- the military and marriage -- neither Obama nor congressional leaders have pushed hard enough, he said.
"It's clear to me that while his [Obama's] heart is in the right place and he stands by his commitments," Socarides said, "this is not a priority for them at this time."
Judy Shepard is more sanguine. She expects passage of the landmark hate crimes bill to lend momentum to the gay rights movement. She also warns it will energize opponents.
"They may feel a little more urgency to get their message across," said Shepard, who has looked forward to a White House signing ceremony for more than a decade. "This is not going to be a cakewalk."