article

The 'Out' Crowd at the Inauguration

Even as they sipped Obama-tinis and danced to Melissa Etheridge, the revelers at the LGBT ball on Tuesday night questioned whether Obama’s soaring rhetoric about equality will be backed up by his policies on gay issues.

01.21.09 8:08 PM ET

When singer Rufus Wainwright took the stage at Tuesday night’s Out for Equality Ball in Washington, D.C., hosted by gay-rights groups, he adjusted the lyrics of his song “I’m So Tired of America.”

“I’m so tired of Rick Warren,” he sang, and was greeted by roars from the crowd.

The moment captured the frustration felt by some of President Obama’s gay and lesbian supporters on Tuesday night—even as they celebrated his inauguration by sipping Obama-tinis and dancing to Madonna, the Scissor Sisters, and Beyoncé. While Obama’s policies on gay rights represent a sea change from those of the previous administration, many feel his soaring rhetoric on equality and civil rights—a key theme of his inaugural address Tuesday—has been undermined by his actions in the weeks leading up to the inauguration.

“There’s some overwhelming issues going on right now…and everyone may have to wait a little while for their issue to come up.”

The chief complaint is, of course, his selection of the pastor Rick Warren—who helped wage a vociferous fight against gay marriage in California—to give the invocation at the inauguration. But the grumbles have extended to other issues. While Obama has unequivocally promised to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, added a qualification last week, saying the economy must come first. Gibbs’ comment was a disappointment to those who hoped the repeal would be one of Obama’s first actions as president.

The actor Sir Ian McKellen reminded the crowd during his brief appearance that, as excited as he was about Obama’s inauguration, “You’ve got to keep him to his promises.” That theme was echoed by Gene Robinson, the openly gay pastor who delivered the opening prayer at Obama’s opening concert, as well as by Melissa Etheridge, who has reached out to Warren in an effort to build a dialogue.

The LGBT community is still grappling with the shock left by the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which dashed a sense of optimism about its fight for equality. Although Obama unequivocally backed same-sex marriage in 1996, he opposed it during the campaign while vowing to allow same-sex couples similar rights to those conferred by marriage.

Co-sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, PFLAG, GLAAD, the Service Members Legal Defense Network, and several other LGBT organizations, the ball took over nearly the entire ground floor of the Mayflower Hotel—a venue undoubtedly eschewed by many a Democratic party planner due to its recent association with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal.

Many in attendance expressed optimism. Immigration Equality’s Julie Kruse said her organization is working toward helping the same-sex partners of Americans be treated as spouses for immigration purposes. She’s been told Obama “supports the goals” of the Uniting American Families Act, of which immigration equality for same-sex partners is a part. It’s not as big or as well-known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but Kruse is willing to give the new administration a bit of a pass on the pander to the right embodied by Warren if the administration sticks to its guns on policy changes the LGBT community is pursuing.

Other people at the ball took Obama’s words about prioritizing this country’s needs more to heart. Jim Higginbotham and John McCarter came up from Alabama for the inauguration and the ball, and thought some of the LGBT community’s concerns might have to take a back seat. “While [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act] are important, they don’t affect every American, and Obama needs to prioritize,” said McCarter.

Higginbotham added, “There’s some overwhelming issues going on right now…and everyone may have to wait a little while for their issue to come up.”

The problem might be, however, that it isn’t so easy to fix the economy—but it’s plenty easy to end the DADT, actually. Some people might even say they elected this president so they can finally have one who can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Megan Carpentier is a freelance writer and an editor at Jezebel.com whose work has also been seen on Foreign Policy Magazine's " Madame Secretary" blog , Glamour's political blog, on Wonkette, in Radar, and at  WashingtonPost.com. Before regaining some semblance of a soul, she was a Very Serious Washington lobbyist who kept her unpaid opinions to herself.