Obama's gay rights challenge

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By Kerry Eleveld
Friday, January 21, 2011

Less than a month after President Obama repealed "don't ask, don't tell," his Justice Department filed its latest brief defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act - the law that makes gay Americans second-class citizens by outlawing federal recognition of their legal marriages.

This action underscores the point that the battle over gay rights is just beginning.

As Obama was preparing to sign the repeal legislation late last month, I was granted the first ever one-on-one interview with him as president by a journalist from a news outlet for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

While I felt it important to give the president the opportunity to elaborate on this singular achievement - one that would help restore his relationship with LGBT Americans and with his broader progressive base - I also wanted to discuss marriage equality. Nearly every country in the world that has legalized same-sex marriage began first by allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

Given that openly gay men and women would soon be fighting and, in some cases, dying for their country, I wondered whether the president thought it was time that those women and men be entitled to full marriage rights.

"Like a lot of people, I'm wrestling with this. My attitudes are evolving on this," Obama responded. "What I know is that, at minimum, a baseline is that there has to be a strong, robust civil union available to all gay and lesbian couples."

His current position on gay marriage - that this is an issue he struggles with as he watches his gay and lesbian friends marry and create loving households - goes beyond his 2008 campaign stance, which was simply to support civil unions. (Earlier in his political career, as a candidate for the Illinois state Senate, Obama supported full marriage rights for same-sex couples.)

But the president is facing new terrain now that some gays in the military will undoubtedly be lawfully wedded to their partners. For example, will the families of those service members have access to the same benefits and support networks that their heterosexual counterparts have? Will their spouses be the first informed if they pay the ultimate sacrifice in the course of defending their country?

There is a serious flaw in the president's position of viewing civil unions as a path to giving same-sex couples equal relationship recognition: The federal government does not recognize civil unions for the purposes of spousal benefits. In fact, no legislation to formalize civil unions exists at the federal level.

That means that advocates of civil unions, Obama included, are suggesting for lesbian and gay couples a status for which the federal government has no definition and no frame of reference within its codes, and one that provides no path to legal recognition.

Meanwhile, his administration continues to defend a law that expressly prohibits the federal government from honoring same-sex marriages, which are legal in five states and the District of Columbia.

The day after I interviewed the president, he was reminded at a news conference by ABC's Jake Tapper that the military doesn't recognize civil unions either.


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