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Obama Makes the Case for Fairness 

Obama Makes the Case for Fairness 


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In his Tuesday evening State of the Union address before a fractious Congress, President Obama made his economic case for "a return to the American values of fair play and shared responsibility" -- a theme pertinent for an LGBT community facing disproportionate poverty rates and legal barriers to equal rights.

"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by," Obama said in the address, calling for an overhaul of the tax code to bridge the widening gap between the rich and poor. "Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them."

The president's address didn't specifically mention the effect of the economy on LGBT Americans and echoed his stump speech last month in Osawatomie, Kansas, where Obama pushed for extensions in a payroll tax break and assailed precipitous income gains by the country's top earners even as middle-class wages stagnate and unemployment remains high.

The evening's Republican reply came from Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who slammed the central premise of Obama's address as unfettered class warfare -- an attempt, he said, "to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others."

Despite lingering stereotypes of gays as affluent urbanites, social science research has recently shown just how LGBT people are economically disadvantaged. One 2011 report by LGBT and progressive groups illustrates in stark terms how discriminatory laws, both state and federal, create barriers to government programs and impose greater tax burdens on LGBT families. Children raised by same-sex couples are twice as likely to live in poverty as those raised in heterosexual households. The denial of marriage rights by the federal government and a majority of states tells part of the story as to why this is the case.

The president has not come out in full support of marriage equality, though the White House has supported repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, has declined to defend the law in court, and has issued general statements against antigay ballot measures to go before voters in several states this year.

Responding to a legislative push to repeal marriage in New Hampshire, the White House reissued a statement crafted from a 2008 position by then-candidate Obama on California's Proposition 8 that the administration has frequently used to address state marriage battles.

"The record is clear that the president has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples," said White House spokesman Shin Inouye. "The president believes strongly in stopping laws designed to take rights away."

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force tied the lack of full marriage equality to economic unfairness in its reaction to the president's speech.

"The fact is, the state of the union for LGBT people remains largely one of inequality," said Rea Carey, the group's executive director. "In many parts of the country, we can still be fired from or denied employment for simply being who we are, and marriage inequality relegates our families to second-class status."

Obama did not make any revelatory, specific statements on LGBT issues in Tuesday's populist-charged address, nor was he expected to. But the president's third State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress came during a frenzy of legislative action throughout the country on marriage equality.

On Monday, the Washington state senate reached critical mass of support for a marriage bill, one unveiled earlier this month by Gov. Christine Gregoire and now expected to pass (though it may well face a voter referendum, as threatened by antigay marriage forces). In New Jersey, marriage legislation passed through a senate committee Tuesday but faces a veto showdown from Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who floored state LGBT advocates Monday with the nomination of an openly gay mayor to the state supreme court, yet said Tuesday that he supports putting the marriage issue on the ballot.

One LGBT mention came toward the end of the speech as Obama touted First Lady Michelle Obama's and Dr. Jill Biden's "Joining Forces" military families initiative.

"Those of us who've been sent here to serve can learn from the service of our troops," Obama said. "When you put on that uniform, it doesn't matter if you're black or white, Asian, Latino, Native American, conservative, liberal, rich, poor, gay, straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you're in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind."

Republican presidential candidates angling to ensure that Obama is a one-term president are split on whether open service by gay and lesbian service members should continue. Mitt Romney has said that while he had opposed repeal, he does not favor a return to DADT. Newt Gingrich has pledged an "extensive review" of repeal, while Rick Santorum has supported a reinstatement of a ban on openly gay service members -- in theory a possibility, given that the bill passed in 2010 merely provided for repeal of the 1993 law. "Their service is not protected by federal statute," Servicemembers Legal Defense Network executive director Aubrey Sarvis said last week of gay service members. "I think there's a misconception among some folks that gays and lesbians are serving today under a new law that permits their service."

Mentions of LGBT-specific rights issues in previous Obama State of the Union addresses focused on "don't ask, don't tell" -- including a pledge to forge a path for repealing the policy in 2010 and a pronouncement in 2011 that "no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love."

On Tuesday night, two lesbian women -- one a military officer, another a plaintiff in a sex discrimination case -- were on Mrs. Obama's guest list.

Sitting with the First Lady, Dr. Biden, and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett was Col. Ginger Wallace, who as an Air Force intelligence officer had served in the Iraq War and other operations. In December, when she was promoted to her current rank, her partner, Kathy Knopf, attended the ceremony and participated in the pinning of Wallace's new rank on her uniform, becoming the first same-sex partner to be involved in such a ceremony. Wallace is scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan in the spring.

Also a guest of the First Lady was Lorelei Kilker of Colorado, who had sued the Western Sugar Cooperative, alleging that it denied women training and promotions and barred them from certain jobs. She and other women involved in the class-action suit last year received a financial settlement that was negotiated between the company and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which will monitor Western Sugar's personnel practices. The company denies any wrongdoing.

Trudy Ring contributed reporting.

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