State senator thrilled with Obama outreach to gays at White House event

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama
President Barack Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, addresses a June 29 reception for representatives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Last week, Scott Dibble, a DFL state senator from Minneapolis, found himself standing in the East Room of the White House, one of 250 guests of President Obama.

The occasion was the 40th anniversary of gay and lesbian protests of a police raid on a pub called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The spontaneous reaction — some called it a riot — of homosexuals during and after the raid marked a first step for thousands of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people to come out of closets and demand civil rights.

That President Obama was holding a June 29 public ceremony about this event with LGBT leaders from across the country was historic. It was treated as front page news in both the Washington Post and New York Times.

“To be in that amazing building, shaking the president’s hand, Mrs. Obama’s hand, was electrifying,” Dibble said.

The president’s handshakes also offered hope to LGBTers that they haven’t been forgotten by Obama, who promised much but so far has delivered little, except disappointment, to gays and lesbians. To date, for example, Obama’s Justice Department has written a legal brief that supports the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and has made no effort to overturn the military’s bizarre “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in dealing with gays.

Since Obama became president, Dibble said, 226 men and women have been drummed out of the military because they are homosexual. In fact, one of the two letters that Dibble, who is gay, was carrying in his suit coat pocket when he entered the White House was in support of an Army National Guard lieutenant, Dan Choi.

Dibble is acquainted with Choi, a Californian, because the senator is married to a man who does business in California and knows Choi. (Dibble and his partner were married in California, before state voters undid gay marriage last fall.)

State Sen. Scott Dibble
State Sen. Scott Dibble

Choi is a classic case of a waste of talent. He is a West Point grad who is fluent in Arabic, but he is being court-martialed under the Clinton-era don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy.

“(The policy) mandates our soldier to effectively live with dishonesty and dishonor,” Dibble wrote in his letter to the president.

The second letter Dibble took to the White House updated the president on LGBT advances in “the heartland.”

“We know that when the great cause of justice moves forward, our entire country moves ever closer to fulfilling its ideals,” Dibble wrote in that letter.

As it turned out, Dibble found himself standing next to Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, as the president was about to speak.

“I introduced myself and said, ‘I have these letters, who should I give them to?’ He said, ‘I’ll take them.’ He was very nice about it, and he slipped them into his pocket.”

The event, Dibble said, is what most in the room needed. It was assurance that Obama hasn’t forgotten pledges made during the campaign.

“He acknowledged the impatience that many feel and that was great,” Dibble said. “It takes a pretty good leader to acknowledge disappointments. God knows, George Bush never acknowledged a deficiency of any sort.”

As a politician, Dibble understands Obama’s slow approach on gay issues. But, as a 1980s activist, he understands the impatience so many feel.

“There’s a dynamic tension in the system,” Dibble said. “I have pressure put on me by young people and others who say the time for justice is now. I’m glad people put pressure on me. But sometimes we are harder on our friends than on the people who oppose us. I also do understand that politics is the art of the possible.”

After the meeting in the East Room, Dibble is convinced that Obama will fulfill the pledges that he made.

It wasn’t just the president’s speech that comforted Dibble, though Obama’s words were right for the occasion.

“I’m absolutely persuaded that he gets it in his heart and bones that these issues are not only important to one constituency but good for the entire country,” Dibble said.

But just as moving an experience for Dibble were little actions made by the president. For example, Obama introduced Frank Kameny to the gathering. Kameny, a WWII vet, was fired from his job in the Army Map Service in 1957 because he is gay.

Kameny, an astronomer, didn’t slink away. Instead, he fought the government every step of the way. His firing went to the U.S. Supreme Court but he lost. In 1965, he picketed outside the White House, demanding equal rights for gays.

By 2007, the signs that Kameny carried while protesting were in a display at the Smithsonian. Last week, the federal government officially apologized to Kameny, and he was a special guest of the president in the East Room.

“Fired for gayness,” said Dibble. “It brought tears to my eyes to see the president acknowledge him in the East Room. Think of that journey.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Rich Ahrens on 07/06/2009 - 02:30 pm.

    And then this weekend Obama hosted a party at the White House with live music from the Foo Fighters, a band infamous as HIV denialists. Rather a backhanded slap in the face, I’d say.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/06/2009 - 05:34 pm.

    From one Rich to another:

    Don;t be so sensitive silly….

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/06/2009 - 07:31 pm.

    For those of us who grew up in rural areas and small towns, we remember that, for many of our friends and neighbors, change is difficult, especially for those who refuse to even talk about (or probably think about) issues surrounding sex or sexuality.

    Such folks will jump ship all-too-easily over this one issue. They must be gently, lovingly, educated, comforted, and given time to get used to the idea that, even going back years ago, those people they thought might be gay or lesbian in their home towns probably were and never hurt anyone, but only kept to themselves and lived in peace with others.

    They need time to adjust. But with a little encouragement and a bit of time to come to terms with how little difference it will really make in their own lives and in the lives of our (presumably straight?) military personnel, they’ll be OK when the change comes (except for those who have serious, deep-seated insecurities about where their own sexual orientation lies and fear that they might find a big, macho gay military man or woman a bit too attractive to be able to successfully or deny or hide their own attraction to that individual).

  4. Submitted by Rich Ahrens on 07/06/2009 - 08:08 pm.

    They have been promoting the theories and the book of a woman who refused to treat her own HIV, infected her newborn through breastfeeding, and refused to treat the child, who progressed into full-blown AIDS and died at the age of three. The mother herself died of AIDS last December, after promoting the idea that AIDS is caused by flu shots or pregnancy.

    That is the kind of anti-scientific attitude we saw throughout the Bush years, and Obama welcomed its proponents into the White House. Caring about that is not being overly sensitive.

  5. Submitted by Eva Young on 07/06/2009 - 09:56 pm.

    Send Orac ( the tip about Obama hosting HIV denialists at a reception.

    This was a first step – but actions speak louder than words. We’ll have to see whether Obama does anything about DADT.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/06/2009 - 10:18 pm.

    Urban legend silly…

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