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As news of the presidential memorandum conferring hospital visitation rights on same-sex couples settled in Friday morning, a gnawing ambivalence enveloped me.
Once this directive works its way through the rules process at Health and Human Services, it will no doubt provide real people with profound and irreplaceable moments that might otherwise have been denied them in their darkest and most vulnerable hours. For that I say, Thank you, Mr. President.
But as I look at the list of advancements President Obama has made for LGBT Americans, I can't escape noticing that nearly all of them fall under the heading "Too politically palatable to have a downside."
It's an ever-growing list of small, incremental steps toward equality that are most certainly positive but still fall far short of the campaign promises that Sen. Barack Obama ran on.
Here's a sampling:
* The presidential memo that provided "certain benefits" to same-sex partners of federal employees: A directive that did help some same-sex couples, especially foreign service officers at the State Department, whose partners, among other things, weren't even eligible for emergency evacuations in life-threatening circumstances. But viewing it through a political lens, this change never ran the risk of becoming a right-wing talking point. Most mainstream Americans couldn't even grasp what benefits had been granted since they didn't include health and pension.
* Passing hate-crimes legislation: While very symbolically important because it was truly the first piece of major federal legislation ever passed to protect LGBT citizens, it was not an unpopular piece of legislation nationwide. Christian conservatives didn't even consider it deleterious enough to have framed the measure as the beginning of the end for mankind as we know it. Was it a legislative battle? Yes -- in the Senate, where legislative inaction rules and anything else seems freakishly eccentric. But no lawmaker, least of all the president, is going to be seriously targeted for passing hate-crimes law.
* Allowing the Census Bureau to release numbers on same-sex couples in 2011: These numbers were actually available in 2000, but the Bush administration said the Defense of Marriage Act prohibited the bureau from releasing them. The Obama administration found that their publication posed no conflict with DOMA.
* Various and sundry appointments of openly gay people: With the notable exception of Chai Feldblum, none of these appointments have been so high-profile or consequential that they required or invited a serious confirmation battle. While it's definitely beneficial for the LGBT community to have people like John Berry and Fred Hochberg serving important roles in the administration, the Office of Personnel Management and the Export-Import Bank just don't attract the attention of a Cabinet member or a Supreme Court nominee. However, nominating Feldblum to a seat on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did draw fire from social conservatives, and Obama stood his ground on her appointment.
* Ending the HIV travel ban: Under Obama, Health and Human Services finally launched the process of changing the rule last year, but the political battle -- or what there was of one -- took place before Obama was even elected. The Senate voted to overturn the ban as part of a PEPFAR funding bill in 2008, and President Bush signed it into law.
The Presidential memorandum for hospital visitation rights of same-sex couples fits comfortably among these accomplishments. Not only do a plurality of Americans now favor some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples -- be it domestic partnerships, civil unions, or marriage -- but if you break out the rights associated with marriage, they poll even higher.
A Newsweek poll from December 2008 found that
67% of voters thought "gay and lesbian domestic partners" should get Social Security benefits; 73% said they should have access to health
insurance and other employee benefits; 74% favored giving them
inheritance rights; and fully 86% said they should have hospital
No one can deny this was a savvy move. Richard Socarides, former LGBT adviser to President Bill Clinton, said he wished the directive had come sooner but acknowledged that it was a strategic win.
"Politically, I think it's very smart," he said. "It's a horrible problem with an easy and inexpensive solution. No one isn't for hospital visitation rights. Obama needed to show that he was taking action, and now he can point to this -- a small step but certainly better than nothing. And it shows that he is thinking about gay rights."
The problem with these advances is that almost every one of them could essentially be swept away by the next administration. Just look at what kind of havoc Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has wreaked in Virginia in terms of rolling back discrimination protections for LGBT people.
Die-hard Obama supporters often complain that the president never gets enough praise for his pro-LGBT achievements. And while the president certainly deserves credit for pushing the hate-crimes bill and giving life to "don't ask, don't tell" repeal with his State of the Union address, LGBT advocates cannot afford to wallow in those victories.
At a recent policy discussion, one mainstream journalist framed Obama as "a reluctant warrior" who needs to be pushed into a corner before he comes out swinging. Nothing demonstrates this better than health reform, where the administration let the bill slide toward the brink of destruction for an entire year before swooping in to rehabilitate the effort.
For those who declare hospital visitation a major victory, I do not disagree. This week's memorandum will surely bring invaluable comfort to average couples across the country in a critical time of need.
But I would add a note of caution: This president has never responded to carrots, and a presidential memorandum is only as good as the next administration.
President Obama has two glaring opportunities to create lasting change this year: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and "don't ask, don't tell" repeal. Passing either one of them would mark the single biggest advancement for LGBT equality in this nation's history, but that window of opportunity narrows with every passing day.
I unequivocally applaud the president's action, but I also never witnessed a campaign rally where Obama told a roaring crowd of supporters, "And as president, I will confer certain benefits on same-sex couples!"