June 30, 2011

Activist goes to White House

Kaleigh Colson, 17, of Portland attends a gay pride reception hosted by President Obama.

By Jonathan Riskind jriskind@mainetoday.com
Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON - Standing outside the White House on Wednesday afternoon in a long line of activists waiting to attend a gay pride reception hosted by President Obama, Mainer Kaleigh Colson was a bundle of nerves.

"It's amazing and awesome, and it is showing that times are changing," Colson said of the White House's third annual event in honor of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.

But the Portland High School senior, an experienced activist already at age 17, wasn't too nervous to know what she would say to the president if given a chance.

She would urge Obama to support making same-sex marriage rights the law of the land.

"I know he's become a little more open-minded about it," Colson said. "I would tell him to make gay marriage legal all over the United States. I would not hesitate to tell him that."

The White House reception occurred just days after New York became the largest state to legalize same-sex marriage. Obama has opposed same-sex marriage in the past, but has said his position is "evolving." He also said earlier this month that the decision should be left to the states, and he returned to that position at a news conference prior to the late-afternoon reception.

"What I've seen happen over the last several years, and what happened in New York last week I think was a good thing, because what you saw was the people of New York having a debate, talking through these issues," Obama said. "It was contentious; it was emotional; but, ultimately, they made a decision to recognize civil marriage."

Obama also said that, "what you're seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they've got to be treated like every other American."

But when asked at the news conference whether he now personally supports legalizing same-sex marriage, he declined to answer.

"I'm not going to make news on that today," Obama said.

During the reception that Colson attended, Obama seemed to be alluding to same-sex marriage when he noted that, "There are going to be times where you're still frustrated with me. I know there are going to be times where you're still frustrated at the pace of change."

But Obama told the activists that his administration has kept promises to uphold gay rights by pushing such policies as the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and a federal hate crimes law.

"I've met my commitments to the LGBT community," Obama said. "I have delivered on what I promised."

Colson didn't have the opportunity to speak directly to the president during the crowded reception in the White House's East Room, though she did shake his hand.

Colson said she hopes to return to the White House, and not just as a guest. Her future could lie in politics, she said.

She might start by running for Portland City Council in a few years, but her sights are set high -- maybe all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And if she isn't elected president, perhaps she will wind up in the White House anyway, in the president's Cabinet.

"I want to continue to make a difference in my community and in the world," she said.

Being inside the White House and listening to the president speak first-hand was, "Definitely a life-changing moment that made me want to be in the White House someday doing what Obama's doing. It moved me so much that I am even more passionate about becoming president someday," Colson said afterward.

Colson, who's heterosexual, is a leader of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network of southern Maine. Her involvement with gay rights began when she was a freshman and witnessed the homophobic taunting of a friend. She later learned about gay teenagers who had committed suicide to escape such harassment and the case of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming college student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was gay.

She joined Portland High's Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliance three years ago and became a leader.

Colson showed she is indeed a budding politician in providing her spin on what Obama's speech might mean.

"It sounds like he is now kind of supporting same sex marriage," she said. "He said that it's about time America moves in that direction. I felt maybe that was his way of saying let's have same-sex marriage in the United States."

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

jriskind@mainetoday.com

 

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