When a Nod’s Not Enough
BY James Kirchick
January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET
While Obama sounds mostly the right notes on gay issues, he hasn’t served in public office long enough to build much of a record. The only significant gay rights legislation he’s dealt with was a bill he cosponsored in the Illinois state senate to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Nonetheless, Obama is quite impressive on paper. He supports civil unions and has called for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law allowing states not to recognize same-sex partnerships officiated in other states and prohibiting the federal government from recognizing them in any way approximating marriage. Obama has called for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and supports the Uniting American Families Act, which gives the same-sex partners of American citizens the same access to the immigration system as heterosexual spouses. He also supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal for employers to fire someone because of sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as the Matthew Shepard Act, which adds both of those traits to federal hate-crimes statutes. During the campaign, Obama supported a civil unions bill still moving through the Illinois legislature, and he opposed anti–gay marriage constitutional amendments in California, Arizona, and Florida -- the same sort of amendments that his predecessor, John Kerry, endorsed when he ran for president just four years earlier. If supporters of gay rights do not judge this record to be perfect -- which is understandable, given Obama’s continued opposition to marriage equality -- they have to admit it’s pretty darn close.
All the prominent gay leaders interviewed for this article have a deep belief that while Obama may not be with them entirely, he does view gay civil rights as part of the “change” message he has thus far elucidated. “As he looks at the diversity of this country, he very clearly sees us as part of the fabric of this country and he sees us very clearly as part of the change he intends to make,” asserts Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “He has committed to a broad array of legal and political actions that show that he is within the Democratic Party tradition of support for civil rights, including gay people,” adds Wolfson, who then cautions, “Our job with any politician is not to help them do what they want but to help them do what we want.”
Most of the efforts related to gay equality over the next four years will initiate in Congress, where the president plays an influential role in helping to set the agenda. Bills that would extend domestic-partner benefits to federal employees and include gays in the federal hate-crimes statute, for instance, never made it out of Congress during the Bush years in part because gay rights groups and their allies on Capitol Hill knew they'd face a certain presidential veto. With a gay-friendly occupant of the White House, however, gay rights advocates will be more aggressive in pushing that legislation through.