The Obama administration and the struggle for gay rights

CHICAGO -- On the heels of extensive protests by gay activists and many progressive groups and individuals the Obama administration has, in the recent period, taken some major steps that move in the direction of solving some of the injustices the LGBT community lives with every day.

The president has signed a memo that extends some limited benefits to partners of gay federal employees. Healthcare and inheritance rights are not covered by the memo, with the president saying legislation is needed so these rights can also be included.

He has also restated, in no uncertain terms, the administration’s intent to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and he said he supports legislation that, in the meantime, would give healthcare benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Then, only yesterday, the administration announced it is rewriting rules that allow discrimination against transgender people -- people who list their sex as other than how it is listed on their birth certificates.

The moves followed angry protests that erupted earlier this month when the Justice Department filed a brief that defended the Defense of Marriage Act.

The protests erupted, in part, because victims of discrimination are never happy when they are told it will take a while to end the discrimination they suffer from and that the issue of their discrimination is 'part of a bigger political process.”

For many in the LGBT community it was particularly difficult to deal with this type of reasoning coming from a president whose position on gay rights they see as having once been very strong.

When Obama was running for the Illinois Senate, “Outlines,” a gay community newspaper in Chicago conducted a survey on where candidates stood on the issue of gay marriage. At that time, in 1996, not one state allowed same-sex marriage. Obama sent in a written response that read, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”

During his 2004 U.S. Senate race Obama came out strongly for domestic partnerships and civil unions, rather than for same-sex marriage. Many gay activists here say that when he spoke to gay audiences he presented the shift as a strategic one -- meaning that there was broader support for the civil unions. Still, there has been widespread support for Obama in the gay community. As a senator and as a candidate for president he won the majority of support in the LGBT community.

During the campaign Obama strongly called for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and for the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

While the LGBT community understands that the struggle for full equality is just that -- a struggle -- they feel they have the right to expect the president to move boldly on this front. Even short of that, however, they were not about to accept the June 12 Justice Department brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act by comparing same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia.

Many could not reconcile this with an administration that is so connected with the struggles for human rights and justice. If the idea is that the White House must avoid a push on gay rights so as not to endanger other parts of its agenda, the idea is one gay activists will not accept.

The gay community is saying that the time for equivocation is over and that the time for action is now.

Six states have made gay marriage legal. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) has announced that he is switching his support of civil unions to support for gay marriage.

Governors are taking the same position.

For weeks, now, Gen. John Shalikishvili, President Clinton’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been appearing on MSNBC with a lineup of other military leaders, demanding an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Pride at Work, the AFL-CIO constituency group that mobilizes mutual support between the organized labor movement and the LGBT community for social and economic justice , has published numerous reports on polls that show overwhelming public backing of equal workplace rights for lesbians and gays. Gallup poll results show the support level at 89 percent.

Even John McCain’s campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, and former Vice President Cheney have announced support for gay marriage.

Just before the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), has introduced into Congress a stronger version of the Employment Non Discrimination Act. A previous version passed the House in 2007 but was killed by a threatened Republican filibuster. The legislation will give both the Congress and the president the chance to move the country closer to that “more perfect union.”