Obama Throws a Crumb to the Gay Community

With two prominent gay activists -- David Mixner and blogger Andy Towle -- bowing out of a Democratic fundraising dinner to be headlined by Vice President Joe Biden later this month, the Obama administration is finally feeling the heat from the president's failure to follow through on campaign promises he made to the gay community.

Obama has backtracked on his pledge to repeal the Clinton-era "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy barring openly gay people from serving in the military. The administration has sidelined legislation to repeal the ban until 2010, with even openly gay Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) concurring with his party's decision to defer consideration of the issue.

Not only have Democrats deferred on Obama's campaign promises, but the administration has actively sought to uphold one law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which candidate Obama pledged to repeal. DOMA, signed by President Clinton in 1996, defines marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman and allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Earlier this month, Justice Department lawyers filed a legal brief in a Santa Ana, CA, federal court defending that law.

Mixner and Towle are not alone. Gay activists across the nation have become increasingly frustrated with the administration. Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of New York’s Empire State Pride Agenda, said President Obama's position on gay marriage "has been causing some problems for those of us working in the states, those who are against it are using him for cover.”

In an apparent effort to mollify those critics, many of whom gave their money and time to his election last fall, Obama signed a presidential memorandum on Wednesday night to extend benefits "to the same-sex partners of federal employees in the civil service and the foreign service within the confines of existing federal laws and statutes." After conducing internal reviews, Director of the Office of Personnel Management John Berry (who is openly gay) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have determined that the government can administer the following benefits:

For civil service employees, domestic partners of federal employees can be added to the long-term care insurance program; supervisors can also be required to allow employees to use their sick leave to take care of domestic partners and non-biological, non-adopted children. For foreign service employees, a number of benefits were identified, including the use of medical facilities at posts abroad, medical evacuation from posts abroad, and inclusion in family size for housing allocations.

However, the plan fails to extend full health care benefits to the same-sex partners of federal workers:

Elaine Kaplan, general counsel for the office of personnel management, said federal statutes dictated that many vital health care benefits be conferred only to “spouses” and children of federal employees, effectively making it a benefit of marriage as defined by the marriage act. Ms. Kaplan said the new legislation the president is supporting would remedy that prohibition. In the meantime, she said, his memorandum would cover those benefits that do not fall under the more restrictive statutory language.

While this package does not offer the full range of benefits that some had hoped it would, it is a welcome development and the first significant step toward the federal government recognizing our long-term relationships.