Benign neglect?

It's time Obama moved vigorously to advance gay and lesbian rights
By EDITORIAL  |  June 24, 2009


As the Phoenix goes to press, more than 155 days have passed since President Barack Obama took office. In that short span, Obama has faced an awesome array of challenges: preparing to exit Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan, contending with North Korea, making sense of the Iranian uprising, appointing a new Supreme Court justice, figuring out health care, reforming Wall Street, and reinventing the economy. There is no doubt that his plate is full.

But if you are gay or lesbian, or if you care about realizing social justice, you must be wondering when Obama is going to turn his attention to the fact that one in 10 of the nation's more than 230 million adults are second-class citizens. These friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members are barred in most states, and totally on the federal level, from enjoying the civil right of marriage, and are prohibited from making a host of personal and financial choices that straight Americans take for granted.

In a narrow sense, Obama's neglect smacks of political ingratitude. Seventy percent of LGBT voters are estimated to have voted for Obama. And while it is difficult to pinpoint the outsized proportion of gay giving to Obama and the Democrats, the cold cash was significant in keeping the Republicans out of power. But this isn't about votes or cash.

By deeper and broader measures, Obama's failure to advance the cause of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans is philosophically disturbing. The first African-American president surely knows what is at stake. According to the rules that order national culture, a citizen's fundamental dignity — his or her human measure — is contingent on full equality under the law.

Obama's modest extension of benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees earlier this month was, if welcome by those relatively few who will benefit from them, in reality paltry and smacking of tokenism. The Obama administration was pressured into action only to appease LGBT activists, who were rightly aghast that the Justice Department had reflexively filed a legal brief to support the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the first same-sex-marriage case brought before federal court. Obama had previously called for it to be repealed while he was campaigning.

Adding psychic insult to legal injury, the Justice Department defended the indefensible in terms that were deeply offensive, arguing that same-sex marriage occupies a place on the same intellectual plane as incest. Believe that and you might as well subscribe to the ancient Roman belief that buggery causes earthquakes.

Obama must take three critical steps if he is to make good on his pledge to advance gay and lesbian civil rights: he must repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; he must promote federal legislation banning employment discrimination; and he must declare open war on DOMA.

While the executive branch of government is bound to uphold established law, it enjoys wide latitude in determining how and when to do so. Defending DOMA should not be in the playbook — and President Obama and his African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, should know better.

It is a stain on President Bill Clinton's administration that he ever signed DOMA. Yes, a veto would have been overridden by Congress. But it would have established the principle that it is inconsistent with American values — at least as practiced by Democrats — to deny anyone the right to marry.

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