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Handicapping the
LGBT Priorities of President-elect Obama

Handicapping the
LGBT Priorities of President-elect Obama

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As the Obama-Biden transition ensues, insights are surfacing into the new administration's agenda for gay Americans. While many of the policy pronouncements read like a list of old favorites, some lesser-known initiatives will likely gain momentum early on.

Clues are beginning to emerge as to what President Obama's priorities will be for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans during his first term.

The most explicit directives came to the surface this week on the President-elect's website within a section labeled more broadly as "Civil Rights." Under the heading "Support for the LGBT Community," the Obama-Biden plan specifically mentions the advancement in the areas of hate-crimes protections, employment nondiscrimination, civil unions and partnership recognition, "don't ask, don't tell," and AIDS prevention.

The statements within each category are the boldest and clearest of any president-elect to date. Referring to civil unions, the document declares, "Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples."

On "don't ask, don't tell," the site invokes the highest-ranking officer who has come out for repeal thus far, retired general John Shalikashvili, who also succeeded retired general Colin Powell as Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Barack Obama agrees with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," reads the statement. "The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited."

But in only one place does the site tag a policy pronouncement to a time line. "In the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies." The one-year time frame holds true to a campaign pledge made by president-elect Obama throughout the election.

While the policy statements are a tangible measure by which the new administration can be held accountable, they offer little insight into exactly how or when certain issues will be advanced.

Another piece of the puzzle for LGBT Americans is the man heading up the Obama-Biden transition, John Podesta, a former Clinton administration official who founded the think tank Center for American Progress, which just released a book called Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

"The telling part is that President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden have chosen John Podesta to lead the transition, which is in perfect keeping with their governing philosophy as progressives and their support for nondiscrimination and equality for the LGBT community," says Winnie Stachelberg, the center's vice president for external affairs and coauthor of the book's GLBT chapter.

Although Stachelberg warns that Podesta's work on the transition must be kept separate from the concepts laid out in the book, the LGBT chapter still offers a window into Podesta's thinking on gay and lesbian issues. It begins by suggesting the appointment of "a GLBT liaison to work in the West Wing of the White House" and then, perhaps not surprisingly, moves directly into prescribing a new commitment to fighting HIV and AIDS.

Though the chapter hits all the usual suspects on the LGBT wish list -- hate crimes, employment nondiscrimination, "don't ask," partnership recognition -- Stachelberg adds that she could see a number of smaller pieces of legislation gaining support early in the administration, such as offering domestic-partner benefits to federal employees, equalizing federal tax treatment for domestic partners, and offering domestic partners Social Security survivor benefits so gays and lesbians can pass on Social Security payments to their partners.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman has already introduced a bill that would extend DP benefits to federal employees and held a hearing on the matter, but President Bush's Office of Personnel Management, which functions as the human resources department of federal government, came out in opposition to providing the benefits.

"I think a review of that by a different set of eyes will come to a different conclusion," Stachelberg says of having another review by the new administration's personnel office. "I think there could be something that comes out of OPM that suggests that they want to move in this direction. Providing domestic-partner benefits is something that's widely supported by the American public."

Another popular item is equalizing the tax treatment for domestic partners. A bill on that has been introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Gordon Smith, who was recently defeated in his reelection bid.

Stachelberg notes that large corporations, many of which provide such benefits in order to attract the best and brightest employees, widely support the legislation because they pay an increased payroll tax on those benefits and have to keep a separate set of accounting books for their gay and lesbian employees.

"The bill hasn't moved through, but it's got corporate support and it's something that people like Rahm Emanuel and some others have been supportive of for a long time," she says. "Those are the kinds of issues that I see moving in the next Congress."

In terms of major legislation, Stachelberg as well as people like Rep. Tammy Baldwin see hate-crimes law as an early target, since it has plenty of support and has already passed through Congress several times.

But similar to recent reports that President-elect Obama wouldn't push repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," a far stickier matter, in the first two years of his administration, Stachelberg offers, "I don't' think there will be a repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' in the near future. It's my sense that the Pentagon is going to want to take a look at that policy with the incoming people over at the Department of Defense."

Overall, Stachelberg says it's impossible to overstate the importance of having a gay-friendly administration. Not only are there already noticeable changes like the pledge on Obama's website not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but, she adds, "having the additional muscle of the White House is essential when you're moving legislation."

One word of caution from Stachelberg: The economy and Iraq loom large, and LGBT people are not the only group that has been out in the cold during the Bush years.

"It doesn't mean we have to stop advocating, it doesn't mean we shouldn't be strategically aggressive," she says. "I just think we have to be patient and make sure we're working collaboratively with our progressive allies, many of whom who have been in the same position we have been for the last eight years."

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