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Obama Extends New Benefits to Gay Partners of Federal Employees

By L.K. Regan

On Wednesday, President Obama announced that same-sex partners of many federal employees will be eligible for additional benefits that until now were reserved for same-sex spouses. This follows up on a 2009 presidential memorandum ordering a limited extension of benefits, and instructing federal agencies to review what more might be available without violating federal law. That review is complete, and the new benefits have arrived.

It's been a big couple of weeks for gay rights. Last week, the House and Senate voted to provisionally end Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the ban on gays openly serving in the military. This week, it's domestic partner benefits, which have been under review since last year. "That process has now concluded," the president said in an official statement released Thursday, "and I am proud to announce that earlier today, I signed a memorandum that requires executive agencies to take immediate action to extend to the same-sex domestic partners of federal employees a number of meaningful benefits, from family assistance services to hardship transfers to relocation expenses." Executive agencies include the major departments, of defense, education, energy, homeland security, treasury, and so on.

The White House has ordered that the administrator overseeing federal agencies "amend the definitions of 'immediate family' and 'dependent' include same sex domestic partners and their children." The result will be that gay partners can gain access to things like fitness facilities, moving expenses, transfers for hardship reasons (to care for a sick partner, to obtain medical care for a partner, or to co-parent children, for instance), as well as adoption and family counseling. "For far too long, many of our government’s hard-working, dedicated LGBT employees have been denied equal access to the basic rights and benefits their colleagues enjoy," the president's statement said. "This kind of systematic inequality undermines the health, well-being, and security not just of our federal workforce, but also of their families and communities."

The timing of the order is no doubt related to the upcoming midterm elections, and to a sense of unease among gay activists about both the pace of reform and the potentially narrowed possibilities for it after November. But there was also the matter of finding out what benefits could be legally extended, and to whom, given that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibits the federal government from treating as equivalent to marriage anything but a union between a man and a woman. Without an act of congress, that cannot change, a fact to which the president's statement obliquely referred. "Although legislative action is necessary to provide full equality to LGBT federal employees," he said, "the agencies have identified a number of benefits that can be extended under existing law."

Speaking of acts of congress, the president is also urging legislators to pass the Domestic Partners Benefit and Obligations Act, which was introduced in 2009 and would make the benefits now offered to opposite-sex partners of federal employees in general (not just at executive agencies) available to their gay and lesbian counterparts by law. This bill, by targeting all federal employees, is clearly on a crash course with DOMA. Yet another reason to give it our full support.