Blogger face-off: Are Obama, Congress doing enough on gay rights issues?

The Hill invites two established bloggers from either side of the political spectrum to sound off on a designated topic in original commentary each Saturday. This week, prominent gay bloggers on the left and the right were asked if gay-rights issues are being adequately addressed by the Obama administration and this Congress.


Some important steps taken, but much work to be done

by B. Daniel Blatt

Unlike most gay activists, when it comes to politics, I have a very small "gay agenda." I believe Congress needs to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) and allow the administration time (say no more than six months) to find a means to implement repeal without compromising unit cohesion or military effectiveness. And I believe the federal and state governments should recognize same-sex civil unions (or domestic partnerships or marriages or whatever they're called) while granting same-sex partners of government employees the same benefits that different-sex spouses in traditional marriages currently receive.

Other than that, the government should leave us alone to live our lives as we please.

With this as background, let me address the question of the day: Is the Obama administration and the Pelosi-Reid Congress adequately addressing gay rights issue?

And the answer is, well, sort of.

They have thrown a bone to the various gay rights organizations in passing an expanded Hate Crimes law which now includes sexual orientation as a protected category. But other than make gay rights leaders feel they have scored a point, this will do nothing to improve the day-to-day lives of gay Americans. Massachusetts has long had a gay-inclusive hate crimes law on its book when Jacob Robida attacked a gay bar in New Bedford, Mass., wounding four people.

Meanwhile, the administration has done nothing to facilitate the immigration and naturalization of foreign same-sex partners of American citizens to the United States. To be sure, the administration has made some small, but significant, moves on behalf of gay federal employees, with the president signing an executive order last June "extending federal benefits to include unmarried domestic partners of federal workers, including same-sex partners". Last month, he built on his 2009 directive, acknowledging that "while Congress would have to act to extend a full range of benefits to same-sex partners of employees, agencies had identified some that could be provided under existing law."

And he has supported congressional action to extend those benefits, calling "for passage of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (H.R. 2517), which would grant domestic partners access to federal employee health care benefits." It doesn't, alas, appear likely that Congress will act on this in the near future.

As to the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," the administration did, after much hesitation, finally take some action, dispatching his top two defense officials, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to Capitol Hill in February to press for repeal. The House passed a bill to repeal the Clinton-era legislation, with action currently stalled in the Senate.

The administration's on-again/off-again approach to DADT repeal, sometimes moving forward with great speed, other times relegating the issue to the back burner, suggests that this item is not high on the president's agenda. Indeed, if it were not for gay bloggers and other normally Democratic gay activists threatening to boycott the Democratic National Committee, he may not have moved forward at all.

In the end, let's give credit where it's due. On gay issues, the president has taken some important steps in the right direction. He has used his executive authority to provide what benefits he can to same-sex partners of federal employees. At the same time, he has not acted aggressively enough (nor have his Democratic counterparts in Congress) to pass a bill granting them the benefits available to heterosexual employees in traditional marriages.

And while Obama has moved forward on DADT repeal, he did not move the issue when he had more political capital to do so. That said, at least he has avoided the blunders of his most recent Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, having instead consulted with the military before moving forward on the issue. Repeal of that Democrat's unfortunate compromise (DADT) is still possible and indeed highly likely before the current Congress adjourns.

Should that happen, bizarre though the president's approach to repeal has been, he'll deserve a lot of credit for taking an action which benefits gay people (by allowing them to serve openly in the military) and furthers national security (by increasing the number of available recruits). Even Republicans, like me, will have to salute him for such an accomplishment.

B. Daniel Blatt blogs at GayPatriot.


Frustration runs deeper than White House would like to believe

by Pam Spaulding

Are gay-rights issues being adequately addressed by the Obama administration and this Congress? I'd say hell no, but the question leaves out significant gains in one area - transgender issues.

In June, the U.S. Department of State announced new policy guidelines ensuring that when a passport applicant presents medical certification that the applicant has undergone appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition, the passport will reflect the new gender.

The Obama administration banned job discrimination based on gender identity throughout the federal government.

And this administration named the first open transgender appointees.

Curiously, the Obama administration has been quiet about touting these. And Congress played no role in this.

However, most of the accomplishments on the LGBT rights front cited by the Obama administration and the Democratic National Committee have been through executive action, such as presidential memos, not congressional action. In essence that means these gains can be reversed by a future president with the stroke of a pen.

Congress and this administration have been playing a bit of embarrassing, public hot potato when it comes to LGBT-focused legislation. Hill insiders would say Congress needed the president to set the priority, the president would lay the blame at the doors of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for inaction. And then progress slowed to a halt.

If we take a look at the president's own stated short-term goals -- the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), and to move forward with passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) -- we've seen delays as well as press conferences with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dodging the most basic inquiries and updates. The lack of the use of the bully pulpit to make it clear to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi that repealing DADT and moving on ENDA were priorities for this president is an obvious sign that not only are our issues not being addressed adequately, but that they appeared to be distractions of the highest order.

And now we're facing midterm elections, and then after that, a kickoff of the re-election campaign...this will not be an environment where we will see this gun-shy president and Congress take on what they believe are controversial issues, even with the poll winds behind their backs.

The sense all along has been that with the enactment of the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Law early on, that somehow the LGBT community would be placated after such high hopes had been raised by the president himself. It was a terrible miscalculation, not only by the Obama administration, but also by some in the traditional leadership of the LGBT community.

The inability to understand the disappointment in the community has reached a fever pitch. What you are now seeing are direct action demonstrations like those of GetEqual, which staged the White House protests involving now-discharged Lt. Dan Choi handcuffing himself to the fence with fellow LGBT service members. There are calls for the community to withhold donations to the DNC and to only fund candidates supporting full equality in the midterms. I think that it's safe to say that the dissatisfaction runs deeper than the White House would like to believe.

Pam Spaulding is the editor and publisher of the award-winning Pam's House Blend. It focuses on LGBT issues, race matters, and the religious right.