President Wades Into Gay Issues
Order Gives Some Benefits to Partners of Federal Workers
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.