Two years ago, I urged President Obama not to punt on signing an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Today, the White House announced he finally decided to listen to me. Of course I’m being cheeky here. Credit for today’s news belongs squarely with those lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights groups that have been pushing for this action publicly and privately all these years.

Language for the federal contractor executive order reportedly had been in the president’s inbox since February of 2012. Rather than sign it, Obama opted to push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal under federal law to discriminate in the workplace based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Under normal circumstances, this kind of more permanent, legislative solution would be the way to go. And, of course, this was the same path pursued by Obama in the dismantling of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. But ENDA has suffered the same fate as most legislation in Congress. It’s gone nowhere.

The executive order won’t be terribly earth-shattering. The private sector has been protecting LGBT workers for years now. According to Human Rights Campaign, nearly 90 percent of the Fortune 500 prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and almost 60 percent prohibit it based on gender identity. And according to a “confidential memo” given to then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) last year by the Williams Institute and the Center for American Progress, the impact of an executive order on federal contractors will be minimal.

The top 5 federal contractors are all defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — and together they receive about a quarter of all federal contracting dollars. Five out of five have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation; five out of five have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity; and the four largest provide domestic partner benefits.
Looking at the top 25 federal contractors, 24 have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation; 13 have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity; and 18 provide domestic partner benefits.
Finally, looking at employees of federal contractors that are in the Fortune 1000, 92 percent are already protected by a company-wide sexual orientation nondiscrimination policy, and 58 percent are already protected by a gender identity nondiscrimination policy.

Several sources told me that the intention was to have the president announce and sign the executive order at the annual gay pride reception at the White House scheduled for June 30. But a planned protest against the president for lack of movement on the order at an LGBT fundraiser tomorrow pushed up the timetable. Only a naif would be shocked by the raw politics involved in making this announcement. What is bothersome is that it took so long to get done.

Still, let’s keep something in mind, folks. Given the data above, not too many people will be helped in terms of raw numbers. But having the protection in place for current and future federal contractors is key. What’s needed is a federal law is to protect LGBT workers from employment discrimination. With ENDA stalled in Congress and facing defections among LGBT groups across the country, Obama’s executive order might be all that will be done for years.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj