Obama extends benefits, promises more for gays

17 June 2009

Obama extends benefits, promises more for gays

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Wednesday extended limited job benefits to gay partners of U.S. government workers in what he called a first step to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Under pressure from gay rights groups, Obama urged Congress to pass legislation that would extend full healthcare and retirement benefits to gay families in the 1.9 million-strong federal workforce, as many U.S. businesses already do.

“Many of our government’s hardworking and dedicated and patriotic public servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoyed for one simple reason: the people that they love are of the same sex,” Obama said before signing an order to extend benefits for federal workers’ gay partners.

“It’s a day that marks a historic step toward the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step.”

Obama’s announcement showed that his administration may focus more on incremental, tangible gains for gays and lesbians, rather than wading directly into the divisive gay marriage debate that has played out at the state level.

Gay rights groups called Wednesday’s move a welcome first step and said they understood that the president had been busy trying to shore up the economy and lay the groundwork for landmark healthcare and climate-change legislation.

But they said they would continue to press the administration to outlaw workplace discrimination and extend benefits for same-sex couples.

“Those things should happen today, should have happened yesterday and they haven’t and until they do there’s going to be a frustration,” said Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.

Obama did not back gay marriage during the 2008 campaign, but he did promise to repeal a 1996 law that prevents the government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

The administration will work with Congress to repeal that law, the Defense of Marriage Act, and extend workplace-discrimination laws to cover gays, said John Berry, head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The administration will also try to overturn the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that allows the U.S. military to expel troops that are openly gay, Berry said.


The outlook in Congress is unclear as a divisive debate over gay rights could interfere with Democrats’ goals to pass landmark legislation covering climate change, healthcare and financial regulation.

Lawmakers are still weighing whether to try to repeal the entire Defense of Marriage Act or simply target sections that prevent the government from offering healthcare and retirement benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.

“Our goal is to come up with a strategy that is more effective to restoring equal rights to gay Americans,” said Ilan Kayatsky, a spokesman for New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

The House of Representatives in April approved an expansion of federal “hate crime” laws to cover gays and lesbians, but the measure has not yet passed the Senate.

At the state level, six states currently recognize gay marriage or plan to by next year, while six others and the District of Columbia provide some level of spousal rights for same-sex couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Some 29 states have changed their state constitutions to ban gay marriage.

The memo that Obama signed on Wednesday will:

* Open up the government’s long-term care insurance to gay partners of federal employees;

* Allow federal employees to use their sick leave to care for a gay partner or the partner’s children;

* Allow gay partners of foreign-service employees to use medical facilities at overseas posts and get evacuated if necessary;

* Include same-sex partners and their children when calculating family size for overseas housing allocations;

* Extend current anti-discrimination rules in the federal workforce to cover transgender employees.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Mohammad Zargham)


17 June 2009
The Associated Press

Obama: More benefits for gay workers only one step


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama signaled to gay-rights activists Wednesday that he’s listening to their desire for greater equality in “a more perfect union.” But he didn’t give them even close to everything they want, bringing to the surface an anger that’s been growing against the president.

“We all have to acknowledge this is only one step,” Obama said in the Oval Office, where he signed a memorandum extending some benefits, such as visitation or dependent-care rights, to the same-sex partners of gay federal employees.

But the president’s critics — and there were many — saw the incremental move to expand gay rights as little more than pandering to a reliably Democratic voting bloc, with the primary aim not of making policy more fair but of cutting short a fundraising boycott.

“When a president tells you he’s going to be different, you believe him,” said John Aravosis, a Washington-based gay activist. “It’s not that he didn’t follow through on his promises, he stabbed us in the back.”

Obama has refused to take any concrete steps toward a repeal of a policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, even though as a candidate he pledged to scrap the Clinton-era rules. He similarly has refused to step in and block the dismissal of gays and lesbians who face courts-martial for disclosing their sexual orientation, arguing that the only lasting ways would be for Congress to act.

Obama said he wants to see the Defense of Marriage Act repealed and in its place a law that would give the partners of gay and lesbian federal employees health insurance and survivor benefits, among other things.

“I believe it’s discriminatory, I think it interferes with states’ rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it,” Obama pledged, flanked by lawmakers and advocates at his Oval Office desk.

Without that repeal, Obama’s ultimate goal of extending health benefits would have to wait. Even those who joined Obama at the signing recognized it was only a first step to achieve what they were promised.

“The community has been growing frustrated and the administration has been working on this since Day One,” said Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights group.

Facing fierce anger, Obama approved small changes in benefits available to same-sex couples. For instance, employees’ domestic partners can be added to a government insurance program that pays for long-term conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease. They also can take sick leave to care for a sick partner or non-biological child.

Even before Obama signed the memorandum, some agencies had voluntarily offered the benefits Obama guaranteed with his signature.

But health care benefits — the ultimate goal for many gay activists — remained forbidden by Congress.

“People feel they’re owed an apology,” said Richard Socarides, a New York lawyer who advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues. “People in the gay community feel he over-promised and under-delivered. Now, with over 250 discharges from the military on his watch … the grace period is over.”

Obama sought to paint his memo as a measure that “paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation’s pursuit of equality.”

“Many of our government’s hardworking and dedicated, patriotic public servants have been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoy, for one simple reason: The people that they love are of the same sex,” Obama said.

Several powerful gay fundraisers withdrew their support from a Democratic National Committee event scheduled for June 25 where Vice President Joe Biden is expected to speak.

“Latinos matter for numbers; gays matter for money,” Aravosis said.

The leaders’ withdrawal from the fundraiser comes after a handful of public missteps that White House officials concede were not handled with the best eye on public relations.

The breaking point came last week, when the administration defended the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to reject another state’s legalized gay marriages and blocks federal Washington from recognizing those state-based unions. Overturning it is a top legislative target for gay activists. But Justice Department lawyers used incest as a reason to support the law.

Critics saw the Justice memo as evidence of Obama saying one thing and doing another.

“I was profoundly disappointed by this action, particularly coming from this administration,” said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay non-incumbent to win election to Congress. “I still take President Obama at his word that he is committed to the repeal … I also recognize that he cannot do it alone.”

Obama on Wednesday again said he was committed to repealing that law but needed lawmakers’ help.

“We’ve got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally, to fight injustice and intolerance in all its forms, and to bring about that more perfect union,” he said.

John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking gay official in the administration, said the president is doing the best he can while waiting for Congress to act.

“This is a first step,” said Berry. “Not a final step.”

Associated Press writers Andrew Miga and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.


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