In a memo leaked to the press on Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has signaled her intention to extend to the same-sex partners of diplomats the benefits provided to legal spouses. Currently, same-sex partners are denied benefits afforded to opposite-sex spouses, including diplomatic passports, health insurance, use of medical facilities at overseas locations, emergency evacuation from troubled regions, transportation between posts, and training in security and languages. Clinton's proposal raises questions about the Obama Administration's intentions regarding broader policies on gay rights, which have recently been in doubt.
In the memo, Clinton writes that, "Historically, domestic partners of Foreign Service members have not been provided the same training, benefits, allowances and protections that other family members receive. These inequities are unfair and must end." The notice goes on to say that, "Providing training, medical care and other benefits to domestic partners promote the cohesiveness, safety and effectiveness of our posts abroad....It is the right thing to do." Whether this will become State Department policy remains a question, however, since Clinton does not have the power to change the rules, only to submit them to interagency review.
In general the Obama Administration's policy intentions toward gays and lesbians have been unsteady. Shortly after his election, we reported that President Obama's civil rights platform clearly stated an intention to repeal both the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy (DADT) and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA directly prevents exactly the policy that Secretary Clinton's memo describes, namely, a federal agency treating a same-sex union as equivalent to marriage, even if it would be a legal marriage in the individual state where it was performed. The suggested policy change would seem to bring the Obama Administration directly into the path of DOMA, and perhaps preface a show-down that would lead to the repeal of that law.
Will the Administration go along with this suggestion? Their own materials present a dubious picture. The transitional change.gov site of the president-elect has given way to the White House's page on civil rights, which reduces the previous website's nearly 750 words on LGBT rights (including, in addition to repeal of DADT and DOMA, expansion of adoption rights, AIDS prevention, hate crime legislation and workplace discrimination) to a few pithy sentences. "President Obama also continues to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and believes that our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity. He supports full civil unions and federal rights for LGBT couples and opposes a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. He supports repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in a sensible way that strengthens our armed forces and our national security, and also believes that we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation." Notice that the Federal Defense of Marriage Act makes no appearance in this text.
Even if it did, this would be no guarantee of prompt, or even any, action. The example of DADT cautions against excessive optimism. President Obama's civil rights platform has been reduced from offering to "work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals," to the above-mentioned support for a repeal. In fact, since his election, the policy on DADT has been one long back-pedal. This Sunday, the day after the leak of the Clinton memo, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and therefore President Obama's primary military adviser, pointed out on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" that DADT is not merely policy, it is law. Until an act of congress changes that law, it will remain the practice of the military to follow it. In so doing, he reiterated the statement of the White House National Security Adviser, Retired Marine General James Jones, who said earlier this month that DADT might not be repealed at all: "We have a lot on our plate right now."
One will have to wait and see whether Secretary Clinton's memo is the spark that lights a DOMA-repealing fire, or is quickly smothered. Keep your eyes out in the following days and weeks to see whether the memo becomes policy.