Last week, the Obama administration made what is arguably one of the largest federal equality advancements for transgender Americans in the history of this country when it revised an antiquated passport policy to allow people to accurately declare their gender identity without having undergone gender reassignment surgery.
Unsurprisingly, the change emanated from the Department of State, where secretary Hillary Clinton has continually used her authority to the fullest extent possible to advance equality on behalf of the global community's minorities and most disadvantaged - not least of which include women and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals here at home and around the world.
In fact, the State Department exceeded Mara Keisling's expectations. Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said she had expected to see the policy emerge by the end of the year. "It came faster than I thought," she marveled.
This change absolutely happened on the Obama administration's watch and President Barack Obama deserves credit for it, but I can't help but note the pattern that has developed at the State Department and draw some conclusions. Chief among them is what's possible when the top few decision makers at State - including secretary Clinton herself - are more inclined to make an unabashed push on behalf of equality rather than a tepid one.
Last Thursday, three openly gay Obama administration officials took part in a panel discussion about LGBT issues at the National Press Club. Elaine Kaplan, general counsel at the Office of Personnel Management, Shin Inouye, White House director of specialty media, and Matt Nosanchuk, LGBT liaison at the Department of Justice, offered a decidedly rosy rendering of the administration's accomplishments to date. And to be fair, that's what they must do given the positions they hold.
But before continuing, I would like to qualify what comes next by saying that all three of these folks are playing a role in pushing for equality on the inside of the administration. I know Inouye quite well and, although we don't always agree, he is putting forth what I deem to be a solid effort at his post; I do not personally know Elaine Kaplan but generally respect her work and her service to the LGBT community in her capacity in both the Clinton administration as well as this one. Overall, I have little feel for Matt Nosanchuk, who joined the Justice Department late last year.
So has the Obama administration arguably made more LGBT gains than any
other administration? Yes, clearly it has. But the country also just
came off eight years of Rovesque Republican rule and the last time we
saw a Democrat in office was during the bulk of the 1990s.
the headlines out of the panel was, "Record number of LGBT staff in
Obama administration." A good thing, no doubt. But let's be real: There
are probably twice as many openly gay people in Washington than there
were in the '90s - myself included.
Then there's the other
accomplishments they touted: the passage of hate-crimes legislation; assuring hospital visitation rights for
same-sex partners which the Department of Health and Human Services is
currently working on; equality advancements in housing practices at the
Department of Housing and Urban Development; and the extension of some
benefits to federal workers - not health and pension - but things like
being able to take sick time off if your partner falls ill or having
your family included in moving expenses if you have to relocate for your
It seems fair to say that the trickle of events has flowed
into a slow but steady stream of smaller, yet meaningful, policy gains for
LGBT Americans. But given that the "hope" president came to the White
House endowed with heavy Democratic majorities in Congress
and a mandate to forge a fresh course for our country, what could
have amounted to a watershed moment for LGBT equality has felt less like
a waterfall than the drip from a leaky faucet. Sure, water is getting
through, but not nearly enough to fortify or sustain a vilified minority
that has been systematically burned by a swarm of homophobic laws that
swept the nation as the vast majority of politicians either cheered or
turned a convenient blind eye.
Plain and simple, on the big ticket items - the ones that matter most
like employment nondiscrimination and repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of
Marriage Act - leadership from the White House has been scarce at worst
and inconsistent at best. The president teed up DADT repeal with his State of the Union address, the White House helped line up stellar
testimony from Defense secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chair
Admiral Mike Mullen, and then the administration hoped to slow walk a
vote on the issue into next year, when it's still far from clear the votes will exist to pass it.
Would "don't ask, don't tell"
repeal be a major accomplishment? Absolutely. But based on all the
concessions that were made to win over votes in the absence of a
sustained White House campaign, repeal not only isn't assured if it's
passed by Congress, it also doesn't resemble anything activists
Namely, if the DADT policy is lifted, it's not clear
what will be installed in its place since no explicit prohibition on
discrimination against lesbians and gays accompanies repeal. Perhaps
serving with honesty and integrity will no longer be grounds for
discharging our nation's gay heroes. But would the partner of a lesbian
soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice be the first to know of her
beloved's death? Could she access the government support networks
currently available to heterosexual spouses? And would she receive
survivor benefits as she attempted to piece together the fragments of
her family's world for herself and perhaps her children too?
the moment, the answers to those questions are anyone's guess. The new
policy vis-a-vis gay service members - whatever it may be - would be
left up to the Defense Department, and it sometimes makes me queasy to
think of what another "compromise" might look like.
Americans been compromised enough?