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Obama White House moves slow on gay rights

President Barack Obama is chipping away at his long list of promises to gay voters but has yet to win the enthusiastic backing of the reliably Democratic voting bloc.
Image: Obama Makes Father's Day Speech
President Barack Obama addresses the crowd on Father's Day in Washington. Obama's administration has accomplished more on gay rights than anyone previously.Pool / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama is chipping away at his long list of promises to gay voters but has yet to win the enthusiastic backing of the reliably Democratic voting bloc.

The Obama White House has accomplished more than any other on gay rights, yet has drawn sharp criticism from some of those who stand to benefit from the president's efforts.

Instead of the sweeping change gays and lesbians had sought, a piece-by-piece approach has been the administration's favored strategy, drawing neither serious fire from conservatives nor lavish praise from activists.

Obama's Labor Department on Tuesday announced it has broadened the definition of "son and daughter" so employers would be required to offer workers in same-sex relationships the right to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for partners' newborns or to adopt. The move, coming less than five months before November's congressional elections, incited conservatives and Republicans who stood in lockstep against the Obama administration's earlier efforts to repeal a ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

It also found support from loyal Democrats and organized labor, but not with some gay activists, who long ago stopped giving Obama the benefit of a doubt.

"We still need laws passed that achieve what these minimal efforts attempt to do piecemeal," said Lane Hudson, a gay activist who last year interrupted Bill Clinton as he defended his administration's handling of gays and lesbians in the military.

"The little things that the Beltway crowd pays attention to — and the White House uses to say 'We're making so much progress' — that doesn't translate outside the Beltway," Hudson said, referring to the rest of the country outside of Washington.

The White House boasts numerous accomplishments to mention during meetings with gay and lesbian activists — including some who were invited to meet with Obama at the White House Tuesday evening — but the impact of those accomplishments is limited.

Even Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who helped write the original family leave law the Labor Department expanded, praised the directive yet called it "just one more step on the long haul towards guaranteeing equal rights'" for the gay community

"There are still too many obstacles, laws and regulations that restrict the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, and we must keep up the fight to break down those barriers to equality," Dodd said in a statement that underscored the impatience felt, even by Obama's allies.

For instance, Obama signed a hate crimes bill into law, expanded benefits for partners of State Department employees and ended the ban on HIV-positive persons from visiting the United States. He referenced families with "two fathers" in his Father's Day proclamation last week and devoted 38 words of his State of the Union address to repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

"There've been some mixed signals from his staff from time to time, but at the end of the day we're on the path toward repeal," said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is trying to end the military ban.

"Initially, we saw the president and his team were a bit cautious and measured, I think in large part because they didn't want to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton administration. That was understandable. But we're long past that," he said.

There's reason for the frustration.

Obama's campaign pledged to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," yet that goal appears to remain years away. In a legal brief, Obama's Justice Department cited incest as a reason to defend the traditional definition of marriage, prompting some gay donors last year to boycott the Democratic National Committee. And just last week, a committee at his Health and Human Services Department recommended the nation retain its policy barring gay men from donating blood.

"Two wars, a financial crisis, now an oil spill, plus a fundamental unwillingness to act boldly on gay rights, have rendered Obama agenda-less on this issue," said Richard Socarides, who advised Clinton on gay policies.

Obama's allies say the small-bore changes are the best activists can hope for even though Democrats control the White House, Senate and House.

"People wrongly assume that having Democratic majorities in Congress means that your legislative goals will be met. That's not the case," said Fred Sainz, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign, Washington's largest gay rights organization.

Gay constituents are not the only part of the Democratic coalition to be disappointed by this White House.

Environmental groups complain that a comprehensive climate bill has languished on the Hill. Organized labor saw its signature legislation, which would make it easier for workers to form unions, fall short because it didn't have White House's backing. And women's groups were in open revolt during the debate over the health care overhaul because of anti-abortion provisions.

Gays say the White House must take a stronger stand.

"The people in the White House have to realize that issues of equality are not controversial," Hudson said.

A Gallup poll last month found 70 percent of American favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

That same poll, however, included a reminder: most Americans, 53 percent, oppose legalizing gay marriage.