Obama policy is outreach to gays
Faced with growing anger among gay and lesbian supporters, President Obama is expected tonight to extend healthcare and other benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
His action is a significant advance for gay rights and comes days after the Obama administration sparked outrage by filing a legal brief defending the law forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Obama opposed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act during his presidential campaign.
It was not immediately clear whether Obama’s latest decision would mollify his critics. Some offered only grudging support Tuesday night after learning of the president’s intentions.
“This is a good thing for the small percentage of . . . people that work for the federal government, but it leaves out the vast majority of people who are in same-sex relationships,” said Geoff Kors, head of Equality California, one of the state’s largest gay rights groups.
As a candidate for president, Obama was a staunch supporter of gay and lesbian rights. He called for repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act and also the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which forbids openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces. He promised to help lead the fight.
Since taking office, however, Obama has disappointed many gay activists by not just keeping silent but, lately, by defending some of the policies he criticized. After months of grumbling, the anger exploded in public denunciations this week after the administration filed its legal brief in Orange County federal court.
“Anyway you cut it, it is a sickening document,” David Mixner, a longtime gay rights advocate, wrote in a blog posting that echoed the sentiments expressed by many in the gay community. “What in the hell were they thinking?”
In a statement the day of the filing, administration attorneys said Obama considered the marriage ban discriminatory and wanted it rescinded but was legally obligated to defend the law as long as it remained in force.
Mixner, one of several gay activists who withdrew support from a big Democratic fundraising bash next week, offered a measured response to Obama’s planned announcement. “I am thrilled for the federal employees,” he said. “I also will be especially thrilled when [the Defense of Marriage Act] is repealed.”
Although there is some sympathy for the president’s position -- “he has enormous stuff on his plate that requires a lot of political capital,” said Steve Elmendorf, a gay Democratic strategist -- many think the concerns of gays and lesbians are once again being shunted to second- and third-tier status.
Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College political scientist and gay activist, recalled how the Clinton administration started with great hope but ended in disappointment when the president, for tactical reasons, retreated on gay rights. President Clinton approved both the marriage bill and the policy preventing gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
“There’s a fear that Obama will prove to be a heartbreaker as well,” Sherrill said.
A White House spokesman said Tuesday that the president was not retreating from his campaign promises. “The president remains fully committed to the . . . proposals he made,” Adam Abrams said. “We have already begun work on many of these issues.”
Tonight’s Oval Office ceremony casts an especially bright light on the president’s action and seemed intended to tamp down anger within the gay community. The extent of the benefits coverage and the cost to the government were not immediately available.
Obama has reached out in other ways. He named openly gay men to head the Export-Import Bank and the Office of Personnel Management. The State Department promised to give partners of gay and lesbian diplomats benefits such as diplomatic passports and language training. In April, gay parents were invited for the first time to bring their children to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
But critics say those gestures are meager beside the stack of grievances that started accumulating even before Obama took office.
Many were angered when he picked pastor Rick Warren, a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Then came the decision to discharge Army linguist Dan Choi after he declared in a cable television interview that he was gay.
The administration also intervened with the Supreme Court and opposed efforts to overturn the law forbidding gays from serving openly in the military. The justices sided with the president, declining to hear a constitutional challenge. White House officials say they want Congress to repeal the policy outright instead of having to intervene on a case-by-case basis.
Nothing, however, matches the outrage provoked by last week’s court filing in Santa Ana supporting the Defense of Marriage Act. The fact that the brief was filed during Gay Pride Month, which Obama saluted with a formal proclamation, only compounded the sense of insult.
“You have some appointments that have been good and a proclamation,” said Sherrill, who has written extensively on the history of the gay rights movement. “And then two tangible areas where the administration has done something wrongheaded and offensive. Doing nothing at all would have been a helluva lot better.”
Obama’s approach to gay issues seems guided by the unhappy experience of Clinton, who started his administration with an unsuccessful fight to open the military to gay and lesbian service members. Clinton lost the battle -- the result was “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allows gays to serve so long as they keep their sexual orientation a secret. The outcome angered many on both sides of the issue. Worse, Clinton squandered much of the goodwill that followed his election.
Now, however, many feel Obama may have learned the lesson too well. “Things have changed in the country,” said Paul Begala, a top advisor during Clinton’s early White House years. “I think some of the people in the White House are slow to apprehend that.”
He cited gays in the military as a good example. When Clinton was pushing his overhaul policy, only 43% of Americans backed the change. Today, nearly 70% of Americans favor military service by openly gay men and women.
Others noted that there are no openly gay men or women among Obama’s top advisors, and suggested that may result in a certain political tone-deafness. In many ways, some said, it appears as though Washington is lagging the rest of the country in the debate over gay rights.
“They’re talking about hate-crimes legislation and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ while people are getting married in Iowa,” said Elmendorf, who spent years as a top aide on Capitol Hill. “It seems on this subject the politicians are a little bit behind where the American people are.”