Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gay Rights Percolating to Top of Obama's To-Do List

I found this piece today at Heidi Patriot.

Gay Rights Percolating to Top of Obama's To-Do List

DURING THE CAMPAIGN then-candidate Obama made some fairly sweeping commitments to the gay community expressing his support for the repeal of the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" military policy. Although he had probably hoped for a bit more time before making good on these campaign promises, events have played out differently. The President now faces some tough choices if he is to make good on his word.

Obama's gay supporters have already been disappointed by a handful of unintentional but nevertheless hurtful missteps during the Inauguration. The first, and biggest, was the controversial selection of Rick Warren, a mega-church pastor and perceived champion of anti-gay causes, to give the Inauguration's invocation. To compensate for the offense this did to gay backers, the Inaugural committee invited gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to give the opening prayer at an open-air inaugural concert earlier in the week. Unfortunately, this backfired when HBO failed to broadcast the prayer, only starting its broadcast of the concert afterwards. In a scramble, the committee ensured the prayer was included in subsequent broadcasts and apologized for the "oversight", but the damage was already done.

In fairness to the campaign, Rick Warren is not the most virulent of anti-gay campaigners; Melissa Ethridge and he had a very public back-and-forth in which she ultimately expressed her opinion that he was someone the gay movement needed to continue a dialogue with; and the whole Gene Robinson affair appears to have been a blunder, not a slight. The real issues are now coming front-and-center, and there is little wiggle-room for Team Obama this time.

Issue one is the whole matter of granting health care and other rights to the gay partners of Federal employees. Obama has expressed his commitment to overturning DOMA, which conservatives claim was designed expressly to ensure the denial of such benefits. Groups such as GLIFAA, the gay and lesbian association for foreign affairs personnel, have been urging Secretary of State Clinton and the administration to re-interpret DOMA more literally so as to loosen up some of the restrictions on gay foreign service officers. (As things stand now, the U.S. government will pay to send diplomats' pets overseas, but not their life partners.) Simultaneously, a Federal court in California recently decided that benefits needed to be extended to same-sex partners of court employees -- which runs completely contrary to the current policy of the Office of Personnel Management. Secretary Clinton has promised to review the policy on benefits, while President Obama has stated publicly that his appointment to run OPM -- not yet confirmed -- shares a commitment to extend benefits to same-sex partners. But a wary gay community wants action, not words.

Issue number two involves another Clinton-era legacy, "Don't Ask - Don't Tell." In early March it was revealed that the military undertook a mini-purge of gay enlistees in the final days of the Bush Administration, at a time when the army's recruitment numbers are down and its commitments expanded. The Bush Pentagon waged a low-level war against gay soldiers over the past eight years, firing among others a large number of skilled (but homosexual) Arab linguists. Many hoped President Obama would immediately suspend "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" but that has yet to happen. Secretary of Defense Gates, however, has made some conciliatory statements indicating a possible review of the policy -- but he was the same Secretary Gates who overseas the January purge.

Many pundits have been claiming these gay battles are the last thing Obama needs right now, and cite the disastrous attempts by President Clinton to overturn the ban on gays in the military in the first months of his presidency. Some express concern that by taking a firm stand for gay rights, Obama will alienate the very Republicans he needs to pass his ambitious program of economic, health, and entitlement reform.

Nothing could be further off the mark. Clinton, elected with well shy of 50 percent of the vote, never had the approval ratings Obama does at this point in his presidency, and anyway, it was his prevaricating on the issue, rather than the issue itself, that ultimately resulted in the muddled "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" compromise. With his approval ratings hovering in the high 60 percentile, and solid majorities in both the House and the Senate, President Obama can afford to do this with plenty of room to spare. The military doesn't even seem wholeheartedly opposed gay servicemen and -women -- after seven years fighting in the trenches of Afghanistan and Iraq with them, they are viewed as loyal colleagues, not fifth column deviants. Colin Powell has even expressed support for binning the policy.

Postponing decisive action on such a political hot potato will ensure nothing will be done for another four years. President Obama owes it to his loyal gay following to start acting on his campaign promises to extent equality to the gay community. And Secretary Clinton, for her part, can begin atoning for the sins of her husband's triangulation (remember, he signed DOMA into law after the Republican majority passed it) by ordering an immediate overhaul of the State Department's policy towards same-sex partners as GLIFAA has requested.

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