Obama uses powers to expand federal rights, benefits for gays and lesbians

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In the past year and a half, President Obama has quietly used his powers to expand federal rights and benefits for gays and lesbians, targeting one government restriction after another in an attempt to change public policy while avoiding a confrontation with Republicans and opponents of gay rights.

The result is that scores of federal rules blocking gay rights have been swept aside or reinterpreted by Obama officials eager to advance the agenda of a constituency that strongly backed the president's 2008 campaign.

Among the changes: Gay partners of federal workers will now receive long-term health insurance, access to day care and other benefits. Federal Housing Authority loans can no longer consider the sexual orientation of applicants. The Census Bureau plans to report the number of people who report being in a same-sex relationship. Hospitals must allow gays to visit their ill partners. And federal child-care subsidies can be used by the children of same-sex domestic partners.

On Wednesday, the Labor Department is expected to announce that federal officials have rethought the Family and Medical Leave Act, concluding that under the law, a gay federal employee may take leave to care for a child with a gay partner.

Individually, none of the changes is especially dramatic. But taken together, they significantly alter the way gays and lesbians are viewed under federal law.

The administration's effort, made largely under the radar -- and outside the reach of Congress -- has alarmed opponents of gay rights, who accuse the president of undermining traditional marriage even as he speaks about respecting it.

"He's been a supporter of married mothers and fathers in name only," said Jenny Tyree, a marriage analyst for CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family. "He speaks very passionately and touchingly about how he grew up without a father. And yet there is this huge disconnect in how he's undermining that same opportunity for other children."

In a Father's Day statement Sunday, Obama called fathers "our first teachers and coaches, mentors and role models" and said that "nurturing families come in many forms, and children may be raised by a father and mother, a single father, two fathers, a stepfather, a grandfather, or caring guardian."

Tyree called the inclusion of "two fathers" in the proclamation a "very troubling" decision to promote a "motherless family."

But gay rights advocates have greeted the changes as evidence that Obama has not abandoned them -- even as he has frustrated some by failing to act quickly on campaign promises to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act and bring an end to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"The administration is moving the executive branch to really provide interpretations that will change the lives of millions of [lesbian and gay] people for the better," said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign.

Winnie Stachelberg, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, praised Obama for finding creative ways to unravel policies that she said have long been unfair to gays.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company