By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009
President Obama moved yesterday to reset his relations with a gay and lesbian constituency that supported him by wide margins in the last election and whose leaders have been disappointed ever since.
In an Oval Office ceremony, Obama signed a presidential memorandum that gives same-sex domestic partners of federal employees access to long-term-care insurance benefits and allows civil servants to use sick leave to care for ailing domestic partners and children not related by blood or adoption. He also ordered the Office of Personnel Management to advise agencies within 90 days on how to comply with anti-discrimination regulations.
The memorandum culminated months of study by the administration aimed at determining how far Obama could extend same-sex domestic partnership benefits within the confines of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 13-year-old law that the president has vowed to overturn. Some conservative groups said the order -- which administration officials said now guarantees benefits that had previously been left up to a supervisor's discretion -- violates the law.
"It's a day that marks a historic step towards the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step," Obama said.
The gay political agenda has proved to be a challenge for Obama, who since taking office has tried to drain the ideological fervor from the most divisive foreign and domestic policy debates. That agenda comprises a set of social and economic issues that at times pit Obama's religious beliefs and centrist instincts against the demands of a well-organized constituency important to his future electoral prospects.
The federal government is the nation's largest employer, with some 2 million civil servants, and by bringing the workforce into compliance with anti-discrimination laws, gay advocates say, the president should be better able to lead by example when dealing with the private sector. About 10 percent of the federal workforce is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, according to advocacy groups, although no official figures are kept because it is illegal for employers to inquire about sexual orientation.
Obama's memorandum, designed to be both incremental and pragmatic, typifies the cautious way he has approached gay issues since taking office five months ago. Although he has appointed gays to prominent positions in his administration -- including John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management -- the memorandum marked his first official foray into the issue as president, a delay that has angered gay supporters.
A number of other constituencies have likewise been disappointed by Obama's pace in addressing their issues, as he has focused much of his attention on the economic crisis and foreign policy initiatives. Hispanic groups have expressed frustration that he has yet to take up comprehensive immigration reform, for example, and human rights and civil liberties organizations have criticized his opposition to the release of detainee abuse photos and his adherence to other aspects of the Bush administration's national security policies.
"We are working on a large amount of things," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday.
Self-identified gay men and lesbians were 4 percent of general-election voters in 2008 and supported Obama by more than 2 to 1, according to exit polls. Leslie Gabel-Brett, the director of education and public affairs for the advocacy group Lambda Legal, said Obama "as a candidate was very clear on a number of things" and "inspired an enormous amount of hope in our country and in the LGBT community," using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
"We are very frustrated, and we'd like the president to move faster to protect our community and work for equality," Gabel-Brett said. "I still think he can be a leader for our community. But we need to see these steps start happening."
Lawmakers in many parts of the country are moving far faster and further than the president on issues important to gays. Six states have legalized same-sex marriage, which Obama says he opposes because of his religious beliefs. Administration officials have advocated less politically charged steps that enjoy broader public support -- such as extending health benefits to same-sex partners -- as the best way to ensure gay rights.
The memorandum yesterday also extended limited benefits to the same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers, including giving them access to medical facilities at postings abroad and medical evacuations.
To extend full health benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers, Congress would have to pass the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, now pending in the House and the Senate. Obama expressed his support for the bill yesterday.
"There's an enormous amount to be done," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "The real measure for me is not so much what happens today as what happens tomorrow."
The president's memorandum did not affect the uniformed services, and gay leaders urged Obama to now move quickly to overturn the Pentagon's 16-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which continues to expel gay men and women from the military.
But the order will, among other things, extend limited health and sick-leave benefits to the same-sex partners of civilian Pentagon workers. Gabel-Brett of Lambda Legal, which works through the courts to expand gay rights, called the result "a patchwork of rights and discrimination for people working for the defense of our country."
"It's hard to see how you can have benefits for civilians and not for people in uniform," she said. "I think the American people understand that equal is equal."
Obama has promised to reverse the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denies benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees and allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Solmonese said opposing the act should be "the central organizing principle for our community."
Gibbs said the administration has been working with the Pentagon, members of Congress and others with a goal of passing legislation to overturn the law by the 2010 congressional elections. Obama said of the law yesterday, "It's discriminatory, I think it interferes with states' rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it."
But gay advocates and their supporters on Capitol Hill are concerned by what some have called the administration's mixed messages on their issues.
Last week, the Justice Department filed a legal brief opposing a constitutional challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, although Gibbs said yesterday that in cases before the courts, it is customary for an administration to defend even laws it opposes. He declined to say whether Obama agreed with the substance of the brief, which Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and other gay leaders have criticized.
The brief called heterosexual marriage the "traditional and universally recognized form." One passage irksome to gay leaders appears to equate same-sex marriage and incest, arguing that the law does not violate the Constitution's "full faith and credit clause" because states are permitted not to recognize marriage between relatives.
Solmonese, who wrote Obama a letter complaining about the brief, said he understands that "there's a legal argument to be made that the administration has an obligation to defend the law."
"Where I and others took issue was with the demeaning and completely unnecessary language that was in there," he said.
In response to the brief, some donors and others canceled plans to attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser next week in Washington. Vice President Biden is scheduled to appear at the event, sponsored by the LGBT Leadership Council, an arm of the DNC.
In a statement yesterday, the conservative Family Research Council said Obama's memorandum "uses taxpayer money to placate an angry portion of his base at the expense of the rule of law."
"Ironically, Mr. Obama has pursued an aggressive pro-homosexual agenda -- but his actions to date are, apparently, insufficient for the radical homosexuals pushing their extreme demands," Tony Perkins, the group's president, said in the statement. ". . . However, beyond the potential legal violations, it's troubling that the President would act in response to homosexual groups which are threatening to withdraw from an upcoming fundraiser."