WASHINGTON — President Obama pledged to end the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military in a speech Saturday, but acknowledged to a cheering crowd that the policy changes he promised on the campaign trail are not coming as quickly as they expected.
"I will end 'don't ask-don't tell,' " Obama said at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights advocacy group. Obama reaffirmed his commitment to end the ban, but did not give a timetable or the specifics that some activists have called for.
The law was passed by Congress in 1993 and signed by President Clinton, who also promised to repeal the ban on homosexuals in the military but was blunted by opposition in the military and Congress.
"We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve the country," Obama said. "We should be celebrating their willingness to step forward and show such courage... especially when we are fighting two wars.
"I appreciate that many of you don't believe progress has come fast enough," Obama said. "Do not doubt the direction we are heading and the destination we will reach."
Obama also called on Congress to repeal the Defense Of Marriage Act, which limits how state, local and federal bodies can recognize partnerships and determine benefits. He also called for a law to extend benefits to domestic partners.
He expressed strong support for the Human Rights Campaign agenda — ending discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people — but stopped short of laying out a detailed plan for how to get there.
"My expectation is that when you look back on these years you will look back and see a time when we put a stop against discrimination... whether in the office or the battlefield," Obama said.
His message Saturday was one of unity and support for a group that has funneled large amounts of money into Democratic coffers.
"I'm here with a simple message: I'm here with you in that fight," Obama said.
Richard Socarides, who advised Clinton's administration on gay and lesbian policy, said Obama delivered "a strong speech in tone, although only vaguely reassuring in content."