White House takes small steps on gay rights

After a rocky start that led to complaints among the president’s supporters, the Obama administration has begun to take more concrete steps on gay rights issues.
The Justice Department clarified a legal brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act last week, a statute that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, asking for the law to be repealed. In addition, the hire of a prominent gay rights adviser on President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign at the department’s civil rights office was reported. And the president himself awarded prominent gay activists Medals of Freedom, even saying one of them was a role model for his daughters, earlier this month.
Those moves won measured praise from gay rights advocates. But many said they would only be worthwhile if followed with more concrete action to end discrimination for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
“I think the brief is a down payment,” said Matt Coles, director of the LGBT project for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It is a start, but only a start.”
The small steps by the administration follow the outcry from the gay community over hesitation by Obama to act on more of the key items on their agenda, such as the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the U.S. military policy that discharges gay and lesbian soldiers if their sexual orientation is disclosed. Obama has shied away from moving quickly to end the policy by executive order, instead trying to gain congressional support to author a permanent legislative end to it.
“A lot of this requires legislative action,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). “We on the Congress side need to get those bills to his desk.”
Polis, a freshman Democrat and the first openly gay man elected to Congress, said the recent moves by the Justice Department are positive. The hire of Matt Nosanchuk, a former aide to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) who advised the Obama campaign, as a senior counselor in the civil rights office to help handle gay rights issues is a plus. The department has also reinstated a working group on LGBT issues, which was disbanded under the Bush administration.
Polis said it was important to have the right staff in place, but that the gay community is more concerned with results than new hires.
“Certainly, it helps,” Polis said, but “the success in implementing an equality agenda is much more important than the structure behind it.”
In the revised Justice Department legal brief, federal lawyers not only say the Defense of Marriage Act should be repealed but use scientific research to refute the argument that same-sex parents are not as good parents as heterosexual couples.
“It is right and great for the federal government to turn to science to say that this stuff has no basis,” Coles said. “The fact that the Justice Department accepts it gives us greater creditability.”
Obama also has “increasingly used the bully pulpit” of the White House to honor prominent gay figures, said Robert Raben, founder of the Raben Group, which often lobbies on gay rights issues.
Raben noted how Obama awarded Medals of Freedom to the late Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King, two well-known gay figures, and how the president praised them both during the ceremony.
“We honor what she calls ‘all the off-the-court stuff’ — what she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone — regardless of gender or sexual orientation —including my two daughters — a chance to compete both on the court and in life,” Obama said in honoring King at the White House ceremony.
“When you have a president who is willing to say that she is a role model for his girls and mentions that she is gay, it is incredible,” Raben said. “It is a low bar but to be treated as real, three-dimensional human beings by the president remains to be a fantastic thing.”
But despite the small steps forward, many in the gay community said they are taking a wait-and-see approach with the administration.
Polis signed onto a letter with several other lawmakers in late June asking the president to stop the military investigating allegations of same-sex orientation while Congress works to end "Don't ask, don't tell." The congressman says he still wants Obama to take that step.
Coles agrees, and besides repealing the military's policy and the Defense of Marriage Act, the ACLU official wants the administration to take a more active stance in promoting legislation to end employment discrimination for gay workers. Most of all, though, he wants Obama to speak up more and explain to the nation why gay rights issues are important.
“I think he has more moral authority than any other president for the last 40 years. I think the country will listen to him and I want him to lead,” Coles said.