Obama pledges action on military as gay activists rally

President says he will drop 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy – but can't say when
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Barack Obama promised to allow gay servicemen and women to serve openly in the US military but left the gay community frustrated again yesterday after he refused to set a timetable for repealing the controversial "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

In an unprecedented gesture of support from a sitting President, Mr Obama used a speech on Saturday to tell gay rights campaigners that he would also work to extend federal benefits to same-sex couples and outlaw discrimination based on sexuality.

Thousands of activists descended on Washington yesterday for a rally to promote equal rights for gays and lesbians, aiming to put pressure on the White House to make good on its promises and to push for the legalisation of gay marriage across the US. The march was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the country's largest gay rights group, the Human Rights Council (HRC), where the President addressed a dinner on Saturday night.

His full-throated support for equality legislation and for a new policy to allow gay people to serve in the military won a standing ovation, but many campaigners said he had failed to match his words with actions. "On style and passion, Obama deserves an A+," change.org blogger Michael A Jones wrote yesterday. "Nobody can give a speech like this President. Now the question becomes when do we stop getting speeches, and start getting specifics?"

The speech caused a backlash from family-values campaigners, with the right-wing Family Research Council leading the charge. "Using America's armed forces as a laboratory for radical social change shows profound contempt for the men and women who risk their lives to secure our freedom," said the council's president, Tony Perkins.

Mr Obama said the US "should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve the country". After his standing ovation for his pledge, he also addressed concerns in the gay community. "I also appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough. Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach."

But sceptics have noted that no timetable has yet been set. Congress and the Pentagon are in the process of reviewing the policy but have yet to make a recommendation. But the entry of the President into an issue on the fault-line of US social politics made even liberal Democrats nervous as they prepare for next year's mid-term elections. Bill Clinton's attempt to repeal the ban on gays in the military sidetracked his presidency in its early years, resulting in the "Don't ask, don't tell" compromise, and Republicans successfully used defence of marriage issues to energise their base.

The repeal of another Clinton-era law, the Defence of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman and prevents any federal departments extending spousal policies and benefits to same-sex couples, is not likely to be on the agenda until after the mid-terms, if at all, political observers say.

Joe Solmonese, the HRC president, lauded Mr Obama's willingness to make a high-profile appearance before a gay audience. "He made it crystal clear that he is our strongest ally in this fight, that he understands and, in fact, encourages our activism and our voice even when we're impatient with the pace of change," Mr Solmonese said.

Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the armed services committee, said he believed it would be possible to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell".

Case study: Fight for rights

Dan Choi led fellow veterans in an 8am jog around Washington's memorials yesterday, a prelude to another day of combat. A West Point graduate, Arabic speaker and Iraq war veteran, Lt Choi now faces discharge after coming out on TV this year and throwing himself into the fight for change. He said: "We have fought in battles to protect our country. Now we are fighting at home for equal and full protection under the law."

Lt Choi attempted to capture the inconsistencies and ironies of the "Don't ask" policy in an open letter to Barack Obama, telling the President that his unit respected him more for telling them about his sexuality.

"After I publicly announced that I am gay, I reported for training," he wrote. "I ordered hundreds of soldiers to fire live rounds ... I showered after training and slept in an open bay with 40 other infantrymen. I cannot understand the claim that I 'negatively affected good order and discipline in the New York Army National Guard'."