Obama And The Equality Agenda

As we all know now, President Barack Obama has pinned his sights on the future -- a word he peppered throughout his State of the Union speech 15 times on Tuesday evening. The president offered forward looking and aspirational goals on everything from education and innovation to investment and infrastructure.

But what worries me in terms of LGBT concerns is that, other than working on the implementation of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” (DADT) repeal, he and his administration have not revealed any road map to equality over the next year in his speech or otherwise.

Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans had varying reactions to the president's shout out to the community in Tuesday's speech.

“Our troops come from every corner of this country -- they are black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American. They are Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay,” Obama said. “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love. And with that change, I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC.”

True, he and his speech writers checked at least part of our constituency's box by using the word “gay.” But they essentially used the accomplishment of the DADT repeal as a vehicle to provide the president an opportunity to urge campuses that had banned military recruiters and ROTC programs over the misbegotten policy to reinstate access. In other words, abolishment of the ban was more of a mechanism to get Obama from Point A to Point B. The mention fell short of laying out any new benchmarks for the community and certainly didn't begin “a conversation” about relationship recognition that the president has said we must have as a nation.

Additionally, the president's assertion that “this year” lesbians and gays would be able to serve openly revealed no new details about the timeline for certification of the repeal (60 days after which, the ban will finally end in earnest). Those details may be more clear after a Pentagon briefing Friday in which senior officials are expected to roll out an implementation training plan over the next few months.

But what was far more disconcerting than the president's handling of LGBT concerns in his SOTU speech was the administration's announcement of an entire initiative -- per a White House statement-- to “better coordinate and strengthen the Federal government's support for military families,” which included absolutely no reference to the fact that those families would soon include gay service members and their partners/children. President Obama, the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden even hosted an East Room event Tuesday and during their combined 30 minutes of remarks none of them made a single mention of gay service members or their families. Once lesbians and gays become visible in the military, will our government continue pretending their families aren't?

How gay partners of service members will be treated by the military still warrants serious consideration since the law includes no clause that requires parity and President Obama has not committed to administering a nondiscrimination mandate (by executive order or any other means) once the ban is lifted. In fact, he meticulously avoided giving that specific assurance twice during my Decemberinterview with him.

But other than implementation of repeal, the only vision we've heard from the president about what he can do for LGBT Americans over the next two years involves “looking for constant opportunities” to use his bully pulpit to advance the equality conversation and making administrative changes within the federal government.

“One of the most important things I can do as president is to continually speak out about why it's important to treat everyone as our brothers and sisters, as fellow Americans, as citizens,” he said in December. “And as I said, there are things that we can continue to do administratively that I think will send a message that the federal government, as an employer, is going to constantly look for opportunities to make sure that we're eliminating discrimination.”

It remains to be seen what those administrative changes will entail. The federal government already has a nondiscrimination clause that protects the entire continuum of our community from transgender to gay (Obama added trans Americans to the federal guidlines). And in 2009, the president already bestowed certain benefits on federal LGBT workers and their same-sex partners, but the Defense of Marriage Act -- which his administration continues to defend -- still prohibits the government from offering the most critical benefits such as health insurance and Social Security survivor benefits.

The LGBT community should look at President Obama as the CEO of a company -- in this case, that company is the federal government. He has plenty of latitude and he can aim as high or as low as he wants. If the president wanted to go big, he could require all businesses that contract with the federal government to have nondiscrimination policies providing protections on the basis of both gender identity and sexual orientation.

And how he handles LGBT concerns during the repeal implementation period will be a proving ground for him of sorts. He can issue a nondiscrimination mandate that covers all gay service members and their legally wed spouses. He can formalize a policy banning discharges of transgender individuals. Or, he and his administration can hedge and divvy out benefits piecemeal. If we begin to see the government and its lawyers use any terminology that amounts to handling issues on a “case-by-case basis,” that will be an immediate red flag for equality advocates.

Equality, by definition, is not subject to caveats.