President Barack Obama has a problem with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community: He keeps making steady progress on some very important matters, and we keep complaining that he has let us down. Our glass is half empty and his, it seems, is half full.
Why are we so disappointed? This president has repeatedly and unequivocally stated his belief in equality for LGBT Americans -- sometimes in soaring language. His Presidential Proclamation in honor of LGBT pride month in June stated: “As we honor the LGBT Americans who have given so much to our nation, let us remember that if one of us is unable to realize full equality, we all fall short of our founding principles.” He has raised our hopes high.
And yet the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy continues and Congress has not yet voted on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. This means the federal government still discriminates against LGBT members in the military and fails to prohibit private employers from following its terrible example.
On the issue of marriage equality, the Obama administration falls far short of those “founding principles.” The president has said that he believes the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which says that federal and state governments do not have to honor marriages lawfully entered by same-sex couples, is unconstitutional and should be repealed. Yet the Justice Department still defends it in court, using discredited legal arguments.
A bill to repeal the law, introduced in Congress last fall, has 113 co-sponsors. The White House has done little to help move it forward.
Health Coverage Denied
Dig deeper into the administration’s actions regarding the rights of married same-sex couples, and the story gets worse. Lambda Legal is representing Karen Golinski, a federal court employee who is married in California but has been denied the health insurance coverage for her wife that is available to other married judicial employees.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that insurance must be provided to end the sexual-orientation discrimination against Golinski. Yet the federal Office of Personnel Management has refused to comply with the judge’s orders, citing the Defense of Marriage Act. Lambda Legal is now suing the federal government to compel it to follow the orders of the federal appellate court’s chief judge and provide equal benefits to the lesbian employee for her family.
It’s hard to believe that this president doesn’t get it. As an elected official in Illinois, he favored legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Once on the national stage, he retreated from that posture in favor of civil unions, arguing that religious doctrines differ on the definition of marriage.
Any law professor knows that religious beliefs are different from the state’s civil-marriage rules, as marriage is an institution managed by government for people of all faiths and those of no faith.
But the story of the relationship between the Obama administration and the LGBT community is complicated.
In April, the president sent a memo directing the secretary of Health and Human Services to issue regulations requiring hospitals that receive federal funds to respect the wishes of LGBT patients about who may visit them. The president was inspired to act by the ordeal of Lambda Legal client Janice Langbehn, who was denied access to her dying life partner in a Florida hospital. Obama called Langbehn from Air Force One to tell her about the memo and offer his condolences.
There is a significant list of other accomplishments that address the inequality we face, starting with the historic legislation that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate-crimes law.
Obama’s accomplishments also include an end to the immigration ban for those with HIV; expanded partner benefits for federal employees (though not partner health insurance or equal pension rights); new nondiscrimination requirements for the Department of Housing and Urban Development; a National Resource Center for LGBT Elders; eased requirements for changing gender markers on passports; a legal opinion that the Violence Against Women Act covers same-sex domestic violence; and an Internal Revenue Service ruling recognizing the community property rights afforded same-sex couples in some states.
A recent policy change illustrates the glass-half-empty or half-full dilemma.
Seeking Full Equality
The U.S. Labor Department announced a rule clarification that allows LGBT workers to qualify for family leave to care for their non-biological or non-adoptive children -- but not to care for a same-sex spouse. This is welcome news for many LGBT parents, but it’s not equality.
Those who are hurt every day by inequality are entitled to insist on changes that make a difference. We know that politicians live in the world of compromise, but there is no such thing as “a little bit married” or “a little bit equal.” Either we are, or we’re not.
We’re holding the president to his own vision to “renew our commitment to the struggle for equal rights for LGBT Americans and to ending prejudice and injustice wherever it exists.”
(Leslie J. Gabel-Brett is director of education and public affairs at Lambda Legal. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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