Speech to the 2008 HRC Dinner in Houston

By Judy Shepard
Annual HRC dinner
Huston, TX
April 16, 2008

A quote from the speech:

I remember having a discussion with him in the summer of ’98 and he was talking about the marriage initiative in Hawaii, and he said, “Do you think that we will ever be allowed to marry?” And I said, “Not in my lifetime, but I’m sure in your lifetime it will happen. Things are changing very quickly.” Ironically it turned out to be in my lifetime and not his.

Remarks by the President at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner

by Barack Obama
Walter E. Convention Center
Washington, D.C.
October 10, 2009

8:10 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Please, you’re making me blush. (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you, Barack!

THE PRESIDENT: I love you back. (Applause.)

To Joe Solmonese, who’s doing an outstanding job on behalf of HRC. (Applause.) To my great friend and supporter, Terry Bean, co-founder of HRC. (Applause.) Representative Patrick Kennedy. (Applause.) David Huebner, the Ambassador-designee to New Zealand and Samoa. (Applause.) John Berry, our Director of OPM, who’s doing a great job. (Applause.) Nancy Sutley, Chairman of Council on Environmental Quality. (Applause.) Fred Hochberg, Chairman of Export-Import Bank. (Applause.) And my dear friend, Tipper Gore, who’s in the house. (Applause.)

Thank you so much, all of you. It is a privilege to be here tonight to open for Lady GaGa. (Applause.) I’ve made it. (Laughter.) I want to thank the Human Rights Campaign for inviting me to speak and for the work you do every day in pursuit of equality on behalf of the millions of people in this country who work hard in their jobs and care deeply about their families — and who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. (Applause.)

For nearly 30 years, you’ve advocated on behalf of those without a voice. That’s not easy. For despite the real gains that we’ve made, there’s still laws to change and there’s still hearts to open. There are still fellow citizens, perhaps neighbors, even loved ones — good and decent people — who hold fast to outworn arguments and old attitudes; who fail to see your families like their families; who would deny you the rights most Americans take for granted. And that’s painful and it’s heartbreaking. (Applause.) And yet you continue, leading by the force of the arguments you make, and by the power of the example that you set in your own lives — as parents and friends, as PTA members and church members, as advocates and leaders in your communities. And you’re making a difference.

That’s the story of the movement for fairness and equality, and not just for those who are gay, but for all those in our history who’ve been denied the rights and responsibilities of citizenship — (applause) — for all who’ve been told that the full blessings and opportunities of this country were closed to them. It’s the story of progress sought by those with little influence or power; by men and women who brought about change through quiet, personal acts of compassion — and defiance — wherever and whenever they could.

It’s the story of the Stonewall protests, when a group of citizens — (applause) — when a group of citizens with few options, and fewer supporters stood up against discrimination and helped to inspire a movement. It’s the story of an epidemic that decimated a community — and the gay men and women who came to support one another and save one another; who continue to fight this scourge; and who have demonstrated before the world that different kinds of families can show the same compassion in a time of need. (Applause.) And it’s the story of the Human Rights Campaign and the fights you’ve fought for nearly 30 years: helping to elect candidates who share your values; standing against those who would enshrine discrimination into our Constitution; advocating on behalf of those living with HIV/AIDS; and fighting for progress in our capital and across America. (Applause.)

This story, this fight continue now. And I’m here with a simple message: I’m here with you in that fight. (Applause.) For even as we face extraordinary challenges as a nation, we cannot — and we will not — put aside issues of basic equality. I greatly appreciate the support I’ve received from many in this room. I also appreciate that many of you don’t believe progress has come fast enough. I want to be honest about that, because it’s important to be honest among friends.

Now, I’ve said this before, I’ll repeat it again — it’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans petitioning for equal rights half a century ago. (Applause.) But I will say this: We have made progress and we will make more. And I think it’s important to remember that there is not a single issue that my administration deals with on a daily basis that does not touch on the lives of the LGBT community. (Applause.) We all have a stake in reviving this economy. We all have a stake in putting people back to work. We all have a stake in improving our schools and achieving quality, affordable health care. We all have a stake in meeting the difficult challenges we face in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Applause.)

For while some may wish to define you solely by your sexual orientation or gender identity alone, you know — and I know — that none of us wants to be defined by just one part of what makes us whole. (Applause.) You’re also parents worried about your children’s futures. You’re spouses who fear that you or the person you love will lose a job. You’re workers worried about the rising cost of health insurance. You’re soldiers. You are neighbors. You are friends. And, most importantly, you are Americans who care deeply about this country and its future. (Applause.)

So I know you want me working on jobs and the economy and all the other issues that we’re dealing with. But my commitment to you is unwavering even as we wrestle with these enormous problems. And while progress may be taking longer than you’d like as a result of all that we face — and that’s the truth — do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach. (Applause.)

My expectation is that when you look back on these years, you will see a time in which we put a stop to discrimination against gays and lesbians — whether in the office or on the battlefield. (Applause.) You will see a time in which we as a nation finally recognize relationships between two men or two women as just as real and admirable as relationships between a man and a woman. (Applause.) You will see a nation that’s valuing and cherishing these families as we build a more perfect union — a union in which gay Americans are an important part. I am committed to these goals. And my administration will continue fighting to achieve them.

And there’s no more poignant or painful reminder of how important it is that we do so than the loss experienced by Dennis and Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was stolen in a terrible act of violence 11 years ago. In May, I met with Judy — who’s here tonight with her husband — I met her in the Oval Office, and I promised her that we were going to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill — a bill named for her son. (Applause.)

This struggle has been long. Time and again we faced opposition. Time and again, the measure was defeated or delayed. But the Shepards never gave up. (Applause.) They turned tragedy into an unshakeable commitment. (Applause.) Countless activists and organizers never gave up. You held vigils, you spoke out, year after year, Congress after Congress. The House passed the bill again this week. (Applause.) And I can announce that after more than a decade, this bill is set to pass and I will sign it into law. (Applause.)

It’s a testament to the decade-long struggle of Judy and Dennis, who tonight will receive a tribute named for somebody who inspired so many of us — named for Senator Ted Kennedy, who fought tirelessly for this legislation. (Applause.) And it’s a testament to the Human Rights Campaign and those who organized and advocated. And it’s a testament to Matthew and to others who’ve been the victims of attacks not just meant to break bones, but to break spirits — not meant just to inflict harm, but to instill fear. Together, we will have moved closer to that day when no one has to be afraid to be gay in America. (Applause.) When no one has to fear walking down the street holding the hand of the person they love. (Applause.)

But we know there’s far more work to do. We’re pushing hard to pass an inclusive employee non-discrimination bill. (Applause.) For the first time ever, an administration official testified in Congress in favor of this law. Nobody in America should be fired because they’re gay, despite doing a great job and meeting their responsibilities. It’s not fair. It’s not right. We’re going to put a stop to it. (Applause.) And it’s for this reason that if any of my nominees are attacked not for what they believe but for who they are, I will not waver in my support, because I will not waver in my commitment to ending discrimination in all its forms. (Applause.)

We are reinvigorating our response to HIV/AIDS here at home and around the world. (Applause.) We’re working closely with the Congress to renew the Ryan White program and I look forward to signing it into law in the very near future. (Applause.) We are rescinding the discriminatory ban on entry to the United States based on HIV status. (Applause.) The regulatory process to enact this important change is already underway. And we also know that HIV/AIDS continues to be a public health threat in many communities, including right here in the District of Columbia. Jeffrey Crowley, the Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy, recently held a forum in Washington, D.C., and is holding forums across the country, to seek input as we craft a national strategy to address this crisis.

We are moving ahead on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)

We cannot afford to cut from our ranks people with the critical skills we need to fight any more than we can afford — for our military’s integrity — to force those willing to do so into careers encumbered and compromised by having to live a lie. So I’m working with the Pentagon, its leadership, and the members of the House and Senate on ending this policy. Legislation has been introduced in the House to make this happen. I will end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That’s my commitment to you. (Applause.)

It is no secret that issues of great concern to gays and lesbians are ones that raise a great deal of emotion in this country. And it’s no secret that progress has been incredibly difficult — we can see that with the time and dedication it took to pass hate crimes legislation. But these issues also go to the heart of who we are as a people. Are we a nation that can transcend old attitudes and worn divides? Can we embrace our differences and look to the hopes and dreams that we share? Will we uphold the ideals on which this nation was founded: that all of us are equal, that all of us deserve the same opportunity to live our lives freely and pursue our chance at happiness? I believe we can; I believe we will. (Applause.)

And that is why — that’s why I support ensuring that committed gay couples have the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country. (Applause.) I believe strongly in stopping laws designed to take rights away and passing laws that extend equal rights to gay couples. I’ve required all agencies in the federal government to extend as many federal benefits as possible to LGBT families as the current law allows. And I’ve called on Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and to pass the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act. (Applause.) And we must all stand together against divisive and deceptive efforts to feed people’s lingering fears for political and ideological gain.

For the struggle waged by the Human Rights Campaign is about more than any policy we can enshrine into law. It’s about our capacity to love and commit to one another. It’s about whether or not we value as a society that love and commitment. It’s about our common humanity and our willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes: to imagine losing a job not because of your performance at work but because of your relationship at home; to imagine worrying about a spouse in the hospital, with the added fear that you’ll have to produce a legal document just to comfort the person you love — (applause) — to imagine the pain of losing a partner of decades and then discovering that the law treats you like a stranger. (Applause.)

If we are honest with ourselves we’ll admit that there are too many who do not yet know in their lives or feel in their hearts the urgency of this struggle. That’s why I continue to speak about the importance of equality for LGBT families — and not just in front of gay audiences. That’s why Michelle and I have invited LGBT families to the White House to participate in events like the Easter Egg Roll — because we want to send a message. (Applause.) And that’s why it’s so important that you continue to speak out, that you continue to set an example, that you continue to pressure leaders — including me — and to make the case all across America. (Applause.)

So, tonight I’m hopeful — because of the activism I see in this room, because of the compassion I’ve seen all across America, and because of the progress we have made throughout our history, including the history of the movement for LGBT equality.

Soon after the protests at Stonewall 40 years ago, the phone rang in the home of a soft-spoken elementary school teacher named Jeanne Manford. It was 1:00 in the morning, and it was the police. Now, her son, Morty, had been at the Stonewall the night of the raids. Ever since, he had felt within him a new sense of purpose. So when the officer told Jeanne that her son had been arrested, which was happening often to gay protesters, she was not entirely caught off guard. And then the officer added one more thing, “And you know, he’s homosexual.” (Laughter.) Well, that police officer sure was surprised when Jeanne responded, “Yes, I know. Why are you bothering him?” (Applause.)

And not long after, Jeanne would be marching side-by-side with her son through the streets of New York. She carried a sign that stated her support. People cheered. Young men and women ran up to her, kissed her, and asked her to talk to their parents. And this gave Jeanne and Morty an idea.

And so, after that march on the anniversary of the Stonewall protests, amidst the violence and the vitriol of a difficult time for our nation, Jeanne and her husband Jules — two parents who loved their son deeply — formed a group to support other parents and, in turn, to support their children, as well. At the first meeting Jeanne held, in 1973, about 20 people showed up. But slowly, interest grew. Morty’s life, tragically, was cut short by AIDS. But the cause endured. Today, the organization they founded for parents, families, and friends of lesbians and gays — (applause) — has more than 200,000 members and supporters, and has made a difference for countless families across America. And Jeanne would later say, “I considered myself such a traditional person. I didn’t even cross the street against the light.” (Laughter.) “But I wasn’t going to let anybody walk over Morty.” (Applause.)

That’s the story of America: of ordinary citizens organizing, agitating and advocating for change; of hope stronger than hate; of love more powerful than any insult or injury; of Americans fighting to build for themselves and their families a nation in which no one is a second-class citizen, in which no one is denied their basic rights, in which all of us are free to live and love as we see fit. (Applause.)

Tonight, somewhere in America, a young person, let’s say a young man, will struggle to fall to sleep, wrestling alone with a secret he’s held as long as he can remember. Soon, perhaps, he will decide it’s time to let that secret out. What happens next depends on him, his family, as well as his friends and his teachers and his community. But it also depends on us — on the kind of society we engender, the kind of future we build.

I believe the future is bright for that young person. For while there will be setbacks and bumps along the road, the truth is that our common ideals are a force far stronger than any division that some might sow. These ideals, when voiced by generations of citizens, are what made it possible for me to stand here today. (Applause.) These ideals are what made it possible for the people in this room to live freely and openly when for most of history that would have been inconceivable. That’s the promise of America, HRC. That’s the promise we’re called to fulfill. (Applause.) Day by day, law by law, changing mind by mind, that is the promise we are fulfilling.

Thank you for the work you’re doing. God bless you. God bless America. (Applause.)

END 8:35 P.M. EDT

Remarks by the President at the Human Rights Campaign Dinner

by Bill Clinton

Grand Hyatt Hotel
Washington, D.C.
November 8, 1997

8:52 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Well, you have just made me feel the way I did —

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you, Bill. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. I sort of feel the way I did when I made my very first speech as a public official more than 20 years ago now. You know, Elizabeth just stood up here and gave that magnificent speech. Wasn’t she great? (Applause.) And she actually said about everything that could be said. (Laughter.) And then you gave me this wonderful welcome, which makes me reluctant to say anything. (Laughter.)

And I was sitting up here — I was thinking, somehow flashing back to my mind, this reminded me of a Rotary Club banquet I spoke at. (Laughter and applause.) And I’ll tell you why. Here’s what happened. Only the punch line is the same, but you’ll have to listen to this.

I had just taken office as Attorney General almost 21 years ago, and they asked me to speak to this Rotary Club banquet. And there were 500 people there. The dinner started at 6:30. I didn’t get up to speak till a quarter to 10:00. (Laughter.) Everybody that was at this banquet got introduced but three people and they went home mad. (Laughter.) The guy who got up to introduce me was so nervous he didn’t know what to do. And we had been there forever, and he finally said — and he didn’t mean it this way, but here’s what he said, he said, in my introduction, he said, you know, we could have stopped here and have had a very nice evening. (Laughter and applause.) And we could have stopped with the applause and Elizabeth’s speech and had a great evening.

I’m delighted to be here. (Applause.) I thank the members of Congress who are here. I congratulate your honorees. I know that a number of my recent appointees are here, including Virginia Apuzzo, our new Assistant for Management and Administration. (Applause.) Fred Hochberg, John Berry, Jim Hormel. Where’s Jim Hormel? He’s here. (Applause.) Jesse White. (Applause.) Hal Creal.

Now, Hal Creal is now the most popular person I have appointed in the Congress because the Maritime Commission broke the impasse on the Japanese ports, which destroys another stereotype here. I am so grateful for what they did, and a lot of Americans are going to have a decent income because of it, and I want to thank him for that. (Applause.)

We have a lot of people here from the White House as well. I want to thank Richard Socarides, Marsha Scott, Karen Tramantano, Sean Maloney, Tom Shea, and our AIDS czar, Sandy Thurman — (applause) — for all their work.

And because it’s dark here, I would like to ask everyone who works for this administration in any department of the federal government or who has an appointment in any way to please stand, including the White House. (Applause.) Thank you.

A little more than six years ago, I had this crazy idea that I ought to run for President. (Laughter.) Only my mother thought I could win. (Laughter.) And at the time, I was so obsessed with what I thought had to be done I thought winning would take care of itself. What bothered me was that our country seemed to be drifting and divided as we moved into a new and exciting and challenging area where we were living differently, working differently, relating to each other and the rest of the world in very different ways on the edge of a new century.

And I sat down alone before I decided to do this and asked myself, what is it that you want America to look like when you’re done if you win? My vision for the 21st century, now, I have said hundreds and hundreds of times, but I still think about it every day — I want this to be a country where every child and every person who is responsible enough to work for it can live the American dream. (Applause.) I want this country to embrace the wider world and continue to be the strongest force for peace and freedom and prosperity, and I want us to come together across all our lines of difference into one America.

That is my vision. It drives me every day. I think if we really could create a society where there is opportunity for all and responsibility from all and we believed in a community of all Americans, we could truly meet every problem we have and seize every opportunity we have.

For more than two centuries now, our country has had to meet challenge after challenge after challenge. We have had to continue to lift ourselves beyond what we thought America meant. Our ideals were never meant to be frozen in stone or time. Keep in mind, when we started out with Thomas Jefferson’s credo that all of us are created equal by God, what that really meant in civic political terms was that you had to be white, you had to be male, and that wasn’t enough — you had to own property, which would have left my crowd out when I was a boy. (Laughter and applause.)

Over time, we have had to redefine the words that we started with, not because there was anything wrong with them and their universal power and strength of liberty and justice, but because we were limited in our imaginations about how we could live and what we were capable of and how we should live. Indeed, the story of how we kept going higher and higher and higher to new and higher definitions — and more meaningful definitions — of equality and dignity and freedom is in its essence the fundamental story of our country.

Fifty years ago, President Truman stood at a new frontier in our defining struggle on civil rights. Slavery had ended a long time before, but segregation remained. Harry Truman stood before the Lincoln Memorial and said, “It is more important today than ever to ensure that all Americans enjoy the rights [of freedom and equality]. When I say all Americans, I mean all Americans.” (Applause.)

Well, my friends, all Americans still means all Americans. (Applause.) We all know that it is an ideal and not perfectly real now. We all know that some of the old kinds of discrimination we have sought to rid ourselves of by law and purge our spirits of still exist in America today. We all know that there is continuing discrimination against gays and lesbians. But we also know that if we’re ever going to build one America, then all Americans — including you and those whom you represent — have got to be a part of it. (Applause.)

To be sure, no President can grant rights. Our ideals and our history hold that they are inalienable, embedded in our Constitution, amplified over time by our courts and legislature. I cannot grant them — but I am bound by my oath of office and the burden of history to reaffirm them.

All America loses if we let prejudice and discrimination stifle the hopes or deny the potential of a single American. All America loses when any person is denied or forced out of a job because of sexual orientation. Being gay, the last time I thought about it, seemed to have nothing to do with the ability to read a balance book, fix a broken bone, or change a spark plug. (Applause.)

For generations, the American Dream has represented a fundamental compact among our people. If you take responsibility and work hard, you have the right to achieve a better life for yourself and a better future for your family. Equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none — a fate shared by Americans regardless of political views. We believe — or we all say we believe — that all citizens should have the chance to rise as far as their God-given talents will take them. What counts is energy and honesty and talent. No arbitrary distinctions should bar the way.

So when we deny opportunity because of ancestry or religion, race or gender, disability or sexual orientation, we break the compact. It is wrong. And it should be illegal. (Applause.) Once again I call upon Congress to honor our most cherished principles and make the Employment Non-Discrimination Act the law of the land. (Applause.)

I also come here tonight to ask you for another favor. Protecting the civil rights of all Americans —

AUDIENCE MEMBER: People with AIDS are dying.

AUDIENCE: Sit down.

THE PRESIDENT: Wait, wait, wait. I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t been here tonight. I’m kind of used to this. (Applause.) People with AIDS are dying. But since I’ve become President we’re spending 10 times as much per fatality on people with AIDS as people with breast cancer or prostate cancer. (Applause.) And the drugs are being approved more quickly. And a lot of people are living normal lives. We just have to keep working on it. (Applause.)

I thank you, but this, too, is part of what makes America great. (Applause.) We all have our say, and nobody has to be afraid when he or she screams at the President. (Laughter.) That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing. (Applause.) And at a time when so many people feel their voices will never be heard, that’s a good thing.



THE PRESIDENT: What is not a good thing, however, is when people believe their free speech rights trump yours. That’s not good. That’s not. (Applause.)

Now, I want to ask you for a favor. You want us to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. You know when we do — and I believe it will pass — you know when we do it will have to be enforced. The law on the books only works if it is also a law in the life of America.

Let me say, I thank you very much for your support of my nominee for the Office of Civil Rights, Bill Lee. I thank you for that. (Applause.) But he, too, comes from a family that has known discrimination and now he is being discriminated against, not because there is anything wrong with his qualifications, not because anybody believes he is not even-tempered, but because some members of the Senate disagree with his views on affirmative action.

Now, if I have to appoint a head of the office of civil rights who is against affirmative action — (laughter) — it’s going to be vacant a long time. (Laughter and applause.) That office is not there to advocate or promote — primarily to advocate or promote the policies of the government when it comes to affirmative action; it’s there to enforce the existing laws against discrimination. You hope someday you will have one of those existing laws. We need somebody to enforce the laws, and Bill Lee should be confirmed, and I ask you to help me to get him confirmed. (Applause.)

I’d like to say just one more word. There are some people who aren’t in this room tonight who aren’t comfortable yet with you and won’t be comfortable with me for being here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you, Bill. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Wait a minute. This is serious. On issue after issue involving gays and lesbians, survey after survey shows that the most important determinant of people’s attitudes is whether they are aware — whether they knowingly have had a family or a friendship or a work relation with a gay person. (Applause.)

Now, I hope that we will embrace good people who are trying to overcome their fears. After all, all of us can look back in history and see what the right thing to do was. It is quite another thing to look ahead and light the way. Most people are preoccupied with the burdens of daily living. Most of us, as we grow older, become — whether we like it or not — somewhat more limited in our imaginations. So I think one of the greatest things we have to do still is just to increase the ability of Americans who do not yet know that gays and lesbians are their fellow Americans in every sense of the word to feel that way. (Applause.) I think it’s very important.

When I say, “I believe all Americans means all Americans,” I see the faces of the friends of 35 years. When I say, “all Americans means all Americans,” I see the faces of the people who stood up when I asked the people who are part of our administration to stand tonight. When I say, “all Americans means all Americans,” I see kind, unbelievably generous, giving people back in my home state who helped my family and my friends when they were in need. It is a different story when you know what you are seeing.

So I say to you tonight, should we change the law? You bet. Should we keep fighting discrimination? Absolutely. Is this Hate Crimes Conference important? It is terribly important. But we have to broaden the imagination of America. We are redefining, in practical terms, the immutable ideals that have guided us from the beginning. Again I say, we have to make sure that for every single person in our country, all Americans means all Americans.

After experiencing the horrors of the Civil War and witnessing the transformation of the previous century, Walt Whitman said that our greatest strength was that we are an embracing nation. In his words, a “Union, holding all, fusing, absorbing, tolerating all.” Let us move forward in the spirit of that one America. Let us realize that this is a good obligation that has been imposed upon our generation, and a grand opportunity once again to lift America to a higher level of unity, once again to redefine and to strengthen and to ensure one America for a new century and a new generation of our precious children.

Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)

END 9:15 P.M. EST