On Agenda, Gays Ask, but Obama's Not Telling

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alex Wong / Getty

President Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2009

On Jan. 9, the President-elect's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, gave a rare one-word answer. Asked if Barack Obama would "get rid" of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gays from serving openly, Gibbs replied firmly, "Yes."

Ever since, the relationship between the President and his gay and lesbian supporters has gotten more complicated. Soldiers continue to be discharged from the military for being openly gay, and activists have voiced increasing concern over the Administration's lack of action on other key issues. "The particular and generalized concern is, What's the plan?" says Robert Raben, a Democratic lobbyist for several gay and lesbian groups.

Last week, concern burst into outrage. When the Justice Department filed a legal brief arguing against gay marriage, the head of Human Rights Campaign — the largest gay-rights group in the U.S. — accused the Administration of failing to recognize the "humanity" of homosexuals. Barney Frank called the White House to protest, and several other gay Democrats announced plans to boycott an upcoming fundraiser, forcing the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, Andrew Tobias, who is also gay, to write donors saying that he understood "all the hurt and anger."

Gays have no real political alternative — it's not like anger will send them running to the warm embrace of the GOP. But the Administration realizes it has angered a crucial constituency and is intent on signaling that it will make good. On June 17, Obama held a signing ceremony in the Oval Office to announce new policies that made a number of minor changes to the benefits offered to the same-sex partners of federal employees and foreign-service officers, including sick leave and long-term-care insurance rights. But the core of the President's message was that work on gay and lesbian equality is just beginning. "We've got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally; to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms; and to bring about that more perfect union," the President announced with a group of gay-rights activists standing at his side. "I'm committed to these efforts."

The President's one-day message may briefly calm the storm, but after the Administration's inattentive first six months in office, the gay and lesbian community has made it clear they're unwilling to take a passive role as other legislative items trump their concerns. "In the first several months of the Administration, there has been a belief that we are not really in the mix," says Steven Elmendorf, a gay Democratic lobbyist. "Obama himself needs to sort of lay out at some point, 'Yes, I want to do these things ... I am going to use some political capital to try to do it."

To date, Obama has mostly avoided confrontations with Congress on major agenda items, including repeals of "Don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal recognition to heterosexual marriages. The Administration did push a hate-crime bill (a gay-rights priority), which has already passed the House, and it is working on a rule-making process that is likely to lead to a lifting of immigration and visitation restrictions for HIV-positive foreigners, another priority for the gay and lesbian community. In his office on June 17, Obama announced his support of a Senate bill that would give domestic-partner rights for health insurance and other benefits to all federal employees. He also promised again to "work with Congress" to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

But Obama remains noncommittal about when exactly the Administration will make these issues a priority. Even more infuriating to gays is that the White House has thus far refused to publicly criticize the Justice Department's filing last week that defended the Defense of Marriage Act and compared the prohibition of same-sex marriage to the prohibition of incest. While the Justice Department is obligated by tradition to defend current law in court, several gay-rights activists said they found the arguments in the brief insulting. "As an American, a civil-rights advocate and a human being, I hold this Administration to a higher standard than this brief," wrote Joe Solmonese, head of Human Rights Campaign, in a letter to Obama on June 15.

Justice Department briefs are due on June 29 for another legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act — this one filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders — and several legal groups will be watching to see if Justice rehashes the offensive arguments in its previous brief. Whatever happens, the gay and lesbian community has no intent to let off the pressure on Obama. "It's like any other intimate relationship," says Rabin, the lobbyist who works with Human Rights Campaign and other gay-rights groups. "It's close and warm and complicated, and you have really good days and really bad days."