With Pride celebrations underway around the country — and the 2012 presidential campaign looming — many are pushing the Obama administration to take action on LGBT-related promises before time runs out on his term.
Executive action from the president is seen as the best — if not only — way to address the issues facing the LGBT community now that Republican control of the U.S. House has legislative progress unlikely for at least two years.
The Washington Blade asked several LGBT organizations for their views on the No. 1 thing they want to see from Obama before the end of his first term in office. Responses range from taking action to eliminate anti-LGBT bias in employment to taking steps to support marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said an executive order from Obama prohibiting the federal government from contracting with companies that don’t have non-discrimination policies protecting their LGBT workers is a priority for his organization.
“We would very much like to see the president put in place an executive order that obliges federal contractors to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination protections,” Sainz said. “On the heels of a successful certification of ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] repeal, this would be an important priority for the president’s first term.”
An executive order barring government contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees has been seen as an alternative to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — legislation that would bar anti-LGBT bias in most situations in the public and private workforce — while Republicans are in control of the House. The White House hasn’t said whether Obama would be open to issuing such a directive.
Job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legal in 29 states and legal in 36 states on the basis of gender identity. More than 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have their own workplace protections based on sexual orientation and more than one-third on the basis of gender identity.
Sainz also referenced the lingering “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, which prohibits openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military. In December, legislation was signed allowing an end to the military’s gay ban, but “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” won’t be off the books until 60 days after the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the U.S. military is ready for repeal.
Pentagon leaders have testified before Congress that certification could happen mid-summer. Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal have called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to signal the OK for open service before his retirement on June 30 because they fear waiting beyond that time would lead to extended delays.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, said the top action that his organization wants to see from Obama is an endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“Having the president embrace the freedom to marry clearly and authentically, explaining to reachable-but-not-yet reached Americans why marriage matters and how he came to support an end to marriage discrimination is the No. 1 thing Freedom to Marry wants to see from President Obama before the end of his first term,” Wolfson said.
Obama has said he’s “wrestling” with the idea of same-sex marriage, but has yet to come out in support of marriage equality and has said civil unions represent the best way to advance relationship recognition for same-sex couples.
White House spokesperson Shin Inouye issued a statement to the Blade recapping the administration’s LGBT-related accomplishments.
“President Obama is proud of the accomplishments he and his administration have made to advance LGBT rights,” Inouye said. “Working with Congress, we have passed and signed into law a repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and an inclusive hate crimes bill.
“Through Presidential Memoranda, the president has extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, and the Department of Health and Human Services now requires all hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to allow visitation rights for LGBT patients. … These are just some of the many examples of the steps we’ve taken so far and we look forward to continuing to make progress in the months and years ahead.”
Other LGBT organizations had their own priorities on which they want to see Obama take action before the end of his first term.
Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said his organization wants a moratorium on the deportations of foreign nationals who are in legally recognized same-sex marriages with U.S. citizens and be eligible for marriage-based green cards for residency if not for the Defense of Marriage Act.
“Immigration Equality’s top priority for the administration is suspension of the deportations that are tearing LGBT families apart every single day,” Ralls said. “Our legal team is currently working with families, on both coasts and in the heartland, who will be separated before the summer is over, unless the Obama administration takes action now.”
Under current immigration law, straight Americans can sponsor their spouses if they’re foreign nationals for residency in the United States. That same path isn’t available to gay Americans in same-sex marriages because DOMA prohibits the federal recognition of their unions — leaving their spouses subject to deportation.
Ralls said “clear legal precedent” exists for halting these deportations and said the president should direct the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to take that action.
“The most fundamental freedom Americans should be able to count on is the freedom to share our homes, and our lives, with the people we love,” Ralls said. “The families we hear from every day need the president to act — not just before the end of his first term — but now. Every day that passes without any action means another family torn apart.”
Pushing the president to stop these deportations could be an uphill battle. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has indicated that Obama believes legislative action on immigration issues is needed — as opposed to administrative action — and “he can’t just wave a wand and change the law.”
Shannon Cuttle, director of the D.C.-based Safe Schools Action Network, said she wants Obama to guide anti-bullying and anti-harassment legislation with enumerated protections for LGBT students into passage. Pending bills that would address this issue are the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
“By the end of President Obama’s first term in office, many LGBT youth who have been inspired and looked up to his presidency with hope and change will come of age to be able to vote in the next election,” Cuttle said. “We need to make inclusive safe schools with protections for all students a priority such as with the passage SNDA and SSIA because without doing so we are failing the next generation of leaders of our country and community.”
Advocates are hoping that anti-bullying measures protecting LGBT students could find their way to Obama’s desk even with Republicans in control of the House. Obama has called for education reform legislation to reach his desk before the beginning of the next school year and LGBT rights supporters are seeking inclusion of SNDA and SSIA as part of this larger vehicle.
However, Obama hasn’t enumerated support for LGBT-specific protections as part of education reform, which would reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, although he’s said the larger vehicle should ensure safe schools for students.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, took a broader approach in what she wants to see from Obama by the end of his first term.
“It is very simple: President Obama needs to recognize our full lives and humanity,” Carey said. “That includes recognizing our families, our marriages, our right to serve openly, the immigration challenges facing LGBT people, as well as many other hardships caused by discrimination.”
Carey said the Task Force also wants to “see significant progress on additional policies” as part of the New Beginning Initiative coalition — a group of organizations working to enact policy changes within the administration — to ensure federal agencies are accommodating LGBT people.
Additionally, Carey said legislative priorities for her organization — LGBT-related or otherwise — remain a priority for her organization even with Republicans in control of the House.
“And while Congress is less-than-friendly terrain right now, we fully expect the president to exercise leadership in protecting Social Security and advocating for the DREAM Act and employment protections,” Carey added.
The full text of Inouye’s statement follows:
“President Obama is proud of the accomplishments he and his Administration have made to advance LGBT rights. Working with Congress, we have passed and signed into law a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and an inclusive hate crimes bill. Through Presidential Memoranda, the President has extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, and the Department of Health and Human Services now requires all hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to allow visitation rights for LGBT patients. In other areas, the Department of Labor has clarified that the Family Medical Leave Act ensures that LGBT parents can provide care for their children in the event of illness; the State Department has taken steps to ensure that transgender applicants can obtain, under certain conditions, passports that accurately reflect their gender; and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed new regulations to ensure that housing programs are open to all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. On the issue of bullying of LGBT youth, the President, Vice President and other Administration officials recorded “It Gets Better” videos; the President and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention; the Department of Education issued guidance to support educators in combating bullying in schools by clarifying when student bullying may violate federal education anti-discrimination laws; and we continue to believe that students should learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment. The Office of Personnel Management, through its Equal Employment Opportunity statement, has clarified that gender identity is a prohibited basis of discrimination in federal employment. These are just some of the many examples of the steps we’ve taken so far and we look forward to continuing to make progress in the months and years ahead.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that job discrimination on the basis of the gender identity is allowed in 38 states. The Washington Blade regrets the error.