A surprising new rift opened between the White House and the gay rights movement after White House officials revealed Wednesday that President Obama would not sign an executive order sought by activists to prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Community advocates learned of the news during a closed-door meeting with two top Obama aides, Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Munoz, who told the group that the White House would instead lead a multi-pronged effort to urge companies, federal agencies and others to oppose discrimination.
It was a stinging setback for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement, a key piece of Obama’s political base that had scored major victories from this White House — namely the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and the administration’s reversal of its position on whether to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Those actions were widely viewed as having triggered an outpouring of financial support from gay donors for Obama’s reelection campaign.
The liberal Center for American Progress, closely aligned with the White House, issued an unusually critical statement Wednesday calling the decision “disappointing.” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group heavily courted by Obama and his aides, said he was “extremely disappointed.” Heather Cronk, managing director of the advocacy group GetEqual, called the decision “mysterious,” noting that “this is the president who as a candidate embraced this executive order.”
White House officials said Wednesday that Obama would prefer a law that would bar discrimination — though they did not rule out signing the order at some point.
“The President is dedicated to securing equal rights for LGBT Americans and that is why he has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employers across the country from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” said White House spokesman Shin Inouye in an e-mail. “The President is committed to lasting and comprehensive change and therefore our goal is passage of ENDA, which is a legislative solution to LGBT employment discrimination — just as the President pressed for legislative repeal of DADT.”
The executive order had become a focus for advocacy groups, which had in recent months showered White House officials with polling data showing the move to be popular with Americans and data suggesting that workplace discrimination against LGBT workers was commonplace.
Gay rights activists ratcheted up their efforts in recent weeks as they began to worry that the White House might delay acting on the order until after the November election.
To urge Obama’s signature, a gay couple from New Mexico attended Monday’s Easter Egg Roll at the White House wearing shirts bearing the phrase, “We Can’t Wait,” a takeoff of the president’s own mantra that he would take executive actions to avoid working with what he has termed an obstructionist Congress.
Moreover, 72 House Democrats signed a letter this month to Obama arguing that the order would shield 16 million workers and lay the groundwork for passage of federal legislation.
Activists have been portraying the White House decision as a broken promise. They point to a report last month by the gay news site Metro Weekly that, as a candidate in 2008, Obama told a Houston advocacy group that he would support a non-discrimination policy for federal contractors.
People familiar with Wednesday’s White House meeting said the Obama aides indicated the president would not sign the order “at this time” — leaving room for hope that he may sign it after the November election.