Obama vows to end ban on gays in military

President Barack Obama, speaking on the eve of a major gay-rights march, told gay supporters on Saturday he would fight for their causes and renewed a pledge to end restrictions on their service in the U.S. military.


AFP - President Barack Obama promised gay and lesbian activists Saturday he will repeal a ban on gays in the US military, rebuking complaints he has not honored his promises to fight for equal rights.

"I will end 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' That's my commitment to you," Obama said during a rousing speech before some 3,000 activists at an event organized by the country's biggest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights organization.

"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 selflessness on behalf of their fellow citizens, especially when we're fighting two wars."

Despite pledging his "unwavering commitment" to support gay rights, Obama did not provide a timeline for repealing the 1993 law, a hot-button social issue. He also did not details plans to end discrimination against gays.

More than 12,000 US service members have been discharged under the policy that requires gays and lebians to keep quiet about their sexual orientation or face expulsion.

The president said he realized many in the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) audience "don't believe progress has come fast enough." But he urged patience, saying: "Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach."

Obama has extended partial federal benefits to same-sex partners of US government workers but he is under pressure from activists to deliver on his campaign promise to repeal the military ban.

"This is also a time of great impatience," said HRC president Joe Solmonese, noting that thousands of gay men and women are expected to descend on Washington Sunday for a National Equality March.

But he insisted that "we have never had a stronger ally in the White House, never."

The Obama administration has said it supports repealing the rule at some point but has made clear no immediate action is on the horizon, as it attempts to manage an economic recovery, health care reform and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Despite the real gains that we've made, there are still laws to change and there are still hearts to open," Obama acknowledged, calling "painful and heartbreaking" the bias some continue to hold against gays.

"This story, this fight continues now. And I'm here with a simple message: I'm here with you in that fight," said the president, as the crowd burst into cheers that echoed throughout the Washington Convention Center.

Hate crimes legislation extending protection to the LGBT community has passed the House of Representatives and could reach the president's desk for signing into law in the coming weeks after it is approved by the Senate.

Obama has said he supports civil unions but not same-sex marriage, which is still banned in 29 of the nation's 50 states. That position has riled a key constituency that helped put Democrats in power at the White House and in Congress in 2008.

At the black-tie dinner, Obama urged Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law his Justice Department has defended and that denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples. He also pressed for legislation extending benefits to domestic partners.

In a bid to tamp down criticism he has yet do deliver on his promises to push robust non-discrimination policies, Obama named Thursday an openly gay lawyer to serve as his ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.

If confirmed by the Senate, David Huebner would become the first openly gay ambassador serving under Obama. Huebner has served as the chief lawyer of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for over a decade.

The Obama administration already boasts several high-profile gay members. The top-ranking gay official is John Berry, who heads the Office of Personnel Management.

Republican lawmakers complained that tagging the hate crimes measure to a 2010 Defense Department authorization bill was an "abuse" of the legislative process.

"Democrats have done a great disservice to the brave men and women of our Armed Forces today by using them as leverage to pass radical social policy," House Republican Leader John Boehner said Thursday, calling the move "unconstitutional and just plain wrong."

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