President Obama on Monday sidestepped calls for his participation in a national march on Washington for gay rights by opting instead to give the keynote address at a dinner for the major gay rights advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, on the eve of the event.
Organizers of the march, which is set for Sunday, had hoped the public event would present an ideal opportunity for Mr. Obama to lay out his plans for concrete steps to end workplace discrimination and undo the military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“This is the civil rights fight of my generation,” said Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won the Academy Award for the film “Milk.”
“I think that the president not choosing to speak [at the march] and let us know his thoughts, express his support for our struggle, if he chooses not to do that, I think that says something very loud and clear about the amount of urgency he feels to addressing this concern,” Mr. Black told The Washington Times.
The decision to deliver a speech to the Human Rights Campaign the night before the march gives the president a chance to talk about his plans to address longstanding concerns of the gay community, which campaigned heavily on his behalf. Most notably, the advocates are watching for some movement by Mr. Obama on the issues of civil rights protections in the workplace and action on the promise he made during that campaign to end the military’s policy created in 1993.
Last week, gay rights activist Cleve Jones wrote to Mr. Obama to urge that he attend, comparing the National Equality March to the landmark civil rights event on the national Mall in 1963, when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
But by that point, there were strong signs the president was not planning to speak at the march. Last month, gay rights activist Michael Petrelis noted that former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote an item on his blog indicating that Mr. Obama would be in San Francisco to present trophies to the participants in the Presidents Cup golf tournament on the same day as the march.
There are also indications that the president has no immediate plans to take action on the military’s controversial policy surrounding the service of gay soldiers.
On Sunday, the president’s national security adviser, James L. Jones, said a change in the policy is not the top priority of the White House right now.
“I don’t think it’s going to be - it’s not years, but I think it will be teed up appropriately,” Mr. Jones said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” news show
Mr. Jones said the president “has an awful lot on his desk. I know this is an issue that he intends to take on at the appropriate time. And he has already signaled that to the Defense Department. The Defense Department is doing the things it has to do to prepare, but at the right time, I’m sure the president will take it on.”
A change to the policy will require congressional action, but the Democratic-led Congress has signaled that it would want Mr. Obama to take the lead before it proceeds too far down that path.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, expressly sought the president’s input on the topic in a Sept. 24 letter, saying, “At a time when we are fighting two wars, I do not believe we can afford to discharge any qualified individual who is willing to serve our country.”
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which is lobbying to keep the policy in place, said she is not surprised that the president’s aides continue to say they are committed to changing the policy. “The report that Obama wants to ‘address’ the issue is not new; the fact that he is not getting his way is [new],” Ms. Donnelly wrote in an e-mail response to questions.
Since Mr. Obama took office, he has been vocal in his outreach to the gay community. The administration has made a number of high-profile symbolic gestures aimed at signaling the president’s commitment to equal rights for gays. In June, he became the first president to honor the gay pride movement with a White House ceremony. Later in the summer, he awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to late gay rights icon Harvey Milk.
But that’s not been persuasive to advocates such as Mr. Black.
“I love the words. I am incredibly grateful to hear those words. But if they’re empty words, that would be very disappointing,” Mr. Black said.
Cleve Jones, the activist who joined the gay rights movement as a student intern to Milk, and who is organizing the National Equality March, thanked the president for the honor bestowed on Milk, but made clear the gesture was not enough.
“Martin Luther King had a dream; we have a dream, too,” Mr. Jones wrote.
“The nation is preoccupied with economic hardship and war. But you have given us hope that civil rights remain on this nation’s agenda,” he said. “The time is right for us to call on our fellow Americans, our elected leaders, and you to reaffirm our shared commitment to civil rights.”
The White House has so far not issued any statement in response.