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A New Day Dawns: Obama Releases Administration's Gay Rights Agenda

By L. K. Regan

Will life for everyday gay Americans change when our new administration takes a seat on January 20? President-Elect Barack Obama seems to hope so. Yesterday his office posted to the official Obama web site a list of his administration's goals for advancing LGBT rights. The list includes some items that gay advocates have worked for for a very long timeā€”even as it walks a careful line on some controversial issues. Want to know what he's promising? Read on.

Barack Obama's web site includes a page dedicated to the advancement of civil rights. This includes seven broadly constructed civil rights goals (including ending employment discrimination, racial profiling, and voting fraud). It also very prominently features a list of eight commitments of support for the LGBT community. On the list:

  1. Expand hate crime statutes: The site promises to push for the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act and other hate crime legislation, citing President-Elect Obama's commitment to such laws as first a state and then a U.S. senator. "Obama and Biden will strengthen federal hate crimes legislation," the agenda says, "expand hate crimes protection by passing the Matthew Shepard Act, and reinvigorate enforcement at the Department of Justice's Criminal Section."
  2. Fight workplace discrimination: "While an increasing number of employers have extended benefits to their employees' domestic partners, discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace occurs with no federal legal remedy," the web site says. So, Obama's goals include passage of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which has had a rocky history in the congress over the question of whether to include language pertaining to gender identity in addition to sexual orientation. The site rides a careful line on this subject, making clear that "our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity," but only via that single reference. Still, given that the gender identity question has long been a hold-up for passage of the bill, Obama's endorsement of the more inclusive version may go some way toward helping to push the legislation forward.
  3. Support full civil unions and federal rights for LGBT couples and oppose a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage: In the ongoing arguments over same-sex marriage, President-Elect Obama has decided to find a middle ground. On the one hand, he points out his opposition while in the Senate to the Federal Marriage Amendment of 2006, which would have amended the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. He also advocates repeal of the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which frees the states of the obligation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and precludes the federal government from treating gay and lesbian couples as married (including in the distribution of benefits), even if they are legally married in one of the states. President-Elect Obama states on his web site his clear support for "full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples." This is likely to cause continued controversy within the LGBT community, many of whose activists feel that the Democratic party abandoned gay rights by failing to support gay marriage in California, or spend political capital fighting anti-gay marriage initiatives in Arkansas and Arizona. The Obama web site makes clear that the battle over gay marriages will remain in the courts and the states until further notice.
  4. Repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell: On the campaign trail, President-Elect Obama spoke of his opposition to DADT, but said that he did not feel its repeal could be forced upon the top military brass. On the website, this is tactfully voiced as, "Obama will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals." Even so, this is the strongest commitment to the repeal of DADT that a president has voiced to date, and represents a fundamental change in military policy.
  5. Expand adoption rights: Adoption rights are an ongoing front in the battle for LGBT rights. This election saw the passage of yet more laws prohibiting gay or unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children. Here the President-Elect's web site makes a strong statement of solidarity: "Barack Obama believes that we must ensure adoption rights for all couples and individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation. He thinks that a child will benefit from a healthy and loving home, whether the parents are gay or not." Unfortunately, exactly how this might be achieved legislatively, given that adoption is generally a state-managed issue, is unclear. Following their win against gay-parent adoption and foster care in Arkansas on November 4, the anti-gay-adoption forces seem likely to try to replicate that law in other red states.
  6. Promote HIV/AIDS prevention and Empower women to prevent HIV/AIDS: In the realm of HIV/AIDS prevention, the President-Elect's agenda finds a great deal more specificity. Here, Obama promises to institute a national strategy involving all federal agencies, "designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities." He also advocates contraception education programs (implicitly, an end to the federal advancement of abstinence-only sex education) and repealing the federal ban on needle exchanges. Finally, the administration's agenda focuses on women who today "account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses." In particular, the site mentions Obama's support for microbicide development, encouraging the creation of topical applications women can use to reduce their risk of infection.