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Obama: Letting down gay supporters?

10 October 09 11:57 GMT

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Los Angeles

As President Barack Obama prepared his keynote speech to the largest gay rights group in America it was clear many in the audience would be looking for more than just words.

Many in the gay community are angry at what they see is a lack of action from the president on issues important to them, such as gay marriage and the right to serve in the military.

A protest march is planned for Sunday in Washington DC, and some are starting to question their support for a candidate who campaigned on themes of change and hope.

At a suburban home outside Los Angeles, peanut butter sandwiches are being made and there's talk of school test scores.

In many ways, this is a typical American household. As her teenage sons complete their homework upstairs, Cherie Schroeder settles down on the sofa for an evening's television viewing. Her partner, Kathy Refaely, is there too.

"Our commitment to each other is no different than any heterosexual relationship," says Cheri, "so why should our rights, the name or anything else like that be separate or different?"

When California banned gay marriage, Cherie and Kathy hoped a new president would help them towards legal recognition.

They both voted for Mr Obama, but now they feel let down.

"There's a lot of talk but not much action," says Cherie.

Kathy adds: "His silence is very scary. He's right in the middle, doesn't give to the right, doesn't give to the left and it is not showing leadership."

Great expectations

The Advocate, America's longest-running gay publication, ran an eye-catching cover last month.

It was similar to the stylised portrait of Obama that became popular before the election, but instead of the blue and red, it is coloured in shades of pink. Where the original said "hope", The Advocate's version says "nope?".

Editor-in-chief Jon Barrett says it was an expression of growing frustration among a traditional Democratic support base.

"[Mr Obama] was very successful at getting the gay community excited about his presidency," says Barrett.

"That was necessary to get him elected, but now people are expecting a pay-off.

"[We want him to do] all the things he said he would do during the campaign... The Defence of Marriage Act - he said he would repeal that. He said he would repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He said he would push for employment non-discrimination and [laws against] hate crimes as well."

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is the Clinton-era policy under which gay servicemen and women are allowed to serve, but only if they do not publicly disclose their sexuality or engage in homosexual acts.

Now, as Mr Obama considers sending more troops to Afghanistan, many - among them straight politicians - think it deprives the US of skilled professionals.

Civil rights

Outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, I met Julianne Sohn. She feels the LAPD is more tolerant than her previous employer, the US Marines.

She struggled to hide her sexuality while in the armed services. Don't Ask, Don't Tell forced her to give up the military uniform and a career she loved.

"I would serve in a heartbeat if given the opportunity," she says. "It doesn't matter what religion, race, gender, sexual orientation you are, as long as you are able to do the job. And I think that's fundamentally what this issue is about.

"Don't Ask Don't Tell: they talk about it being a gay issue but it's not. It's just about civil rights and equality."

Without concessions, gay groups say Mr Obama could risk their support.

In many places in America, gay people enjoy a high profile, economic and political clout. Campaigners say if they all act together, they could swing an election.

But in this diverse community there are many different opinions: the gay community does not all think - or vote - alike.

At a gay bar in West Hollywood, the centre of the the Los Angeles "scene", we met several people who were still willing to be patient.

"He has a lot on his plate," said Jay Guzman, who was walking past the bar. "He has to get the economy together first. Those are the priorities first and get our country together. And then focus on marriage and stuff like that."

Ronnie Mickel, a waiter at the bar, said: "People expect so much out of the president of the United States. We're not giving him enough time to make the changes. He's doing a lot for our country right now."

As Mr Obama juggles America's problems, he needs to maintain widespread support. Some in the gay community think their concerns are taking a back seat.

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