Equality Matters

Doing The Right Thing For 2012

April 06, 2011 2:14 pm ET - by Kerry Eleveld

President Barack Obama has just announced his 2012 bid for re-election and the inevitable push for LGBT support - donor, voter, and activist - has begun. To be sure, many LGBT Americans would much rather see Barack Obama still gracing the Oval Office come January of 2013 than a Republican. And so, many of us are faced with a familiar dilemma: should we sublimate our intrinsic desire to continue advocating for full equality to the urgency of reelecting a man who has presided over some of the greatest advances in the history of the LGBT movement?

My answer: No.

This is not an either-or proposition in my opinion, nor should we feel compelled to surrender our basic humanity to the whims of the election cycle. That type of thinking is a relic of days past when politicians held firmly to the notion that addressing LGBT concerns would undoubtedly be a drag on their electability. What we have witnessed over the past couple years is just the opposite. The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" scored huge points with President Obama's target voters -- independent, moderate, and progressive alike - and his declaration that the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional reestablished his ability to show bold leadership.

Here's our new reality: The right thing to do is also the popular thing to do.

But there is much more work to be done and it would be an absolute mistake for LGBT advocates to sit back and relax after the momentum generated by the DADT win and the push toward DOMA's dissolution. The country is at a tipping point as evidenced by multiple polls indicating voters are evenly divided if not leaning toward support for same-sex marriage - a decent barometer for our overall acceptance since marriage equality has also been one of our most contentious issues.

Laying out constructive and achievable goals for the administration over the course of the next year could very well help materialize meaningful advances for all members of the queer community. The good news is, LGBT advocacy groups and President Obama himself generally agree on the means by which we can achieve these gains.

When the president outlined his priorities for the LGBT community in our interview last December, he acknowledged that legislative wins seemed unlikely over the next couple years but he also repeatedly emphasized his ability to use his executive power to make administrative changes within the federal government.

"[L]et me just say there are still a lot of things we can do administratively even if we don't pass things legislatively," he said. "So my ability to make sure that the federal government is an employer that treats gays and lesbians fairly, that's something I can do, and sets a model for folks across the board."

At the outset of the Obama administration, both the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign provided the Obama transition team with a lengthy list of recommendations -- mostly for actions by individual agency level -- that would vastly improve the lives of LGBT Americans and could be accomplished entirely at the discretion of the president via executive action.

"For the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, the election of a fair-minded president provides vast opportunities to advance equality in material ways on an accelerated timetable," read the opening sentence of HRC's Blue Print for Positive Change, which was provided to incoming administration officials in December of 2008.

The documents were thorough and exhaustive, with HRC's running around 25 pages and NGLTF's coming in at over 200 pages and, while some of the initiatives outlined in these policy papers have been accomplished, the vast majority of them remain either untouched or only partially addressed. In fact, after laying out approximately 80 initiatives in its New Beginnings Initiative, NGLTF lists only nine accomplishments on its success tracker page, which was set up to follow how many administrative actions have been taken by the administration.

The truth is, it's difficult to present a one-for-one comparison of how many "asks" either organization made and how many were actually achieved because most of the actions the administration has taken don't directly correspond to what was asked of them. I also believe that getting caught up in an accounting of "wins" is a distraction. Overall, it's fair to say that more could clearly be done and the broader point is that leaving pro-equality changes up to the individual Cabinet secretaries of each federal agency is not a good way to achieve government-wide advances.

Instead, we should concentrate our efforts on five broader initiatives that would incorporate many of the recommendations originally presented by NGLTF and HRC, but in a more comprehensive way. Of the suggestions made by NGLTF, for instance, over half of them took a piecemeal approach to providing nondiscrimination protections at the agency level as well as making those agencies more inclusive in areas such as data collection, definitions, and research.

Rather than assembling a patchwork of progress agency by agency, President Obama should issue executive orders or amend existing ones that set a government-wide precedent for equality in the following ways:

1) Directing the federal government to include LGBT Americans in all federal level data collection efforts.

2) Mandating that all federal contractors must have policies providing nondiscrimination protections for their employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

3) Prohibiting federal funds from being used to discriminate against LGBT Americans.

4) Prohibiting discrimination against military service members on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

5) Adding gender identity protections to President Clinton's executive order 13087, which protected civilian federal workers from bias based on their sexual orientation.

Parsing The Prescription

While some of these executive actions may seem a little wonky, let me make a few quick observations.

Not having substantive data on LGBT Americans serves as a constant handicap for any advocate attempting to provide federal services to the queer community in all sectors ranging from health care to housing to education. Just last week, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a comprehensive report on health disparities in which they noted: "Because demographic data provide the foundation for understanding any population's status and needs, federally funded surveys should proactively collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity, just as they routinely gather information on race and ethnicity."

John Podesta, president and CEO of the influential Center for American Progress, deemed the compilation of numbers so important that he called collecting LGBT data in federal surveys "essential" within his executive order recommendations for the White House following the November 2010 elections.

If you doubt the efficacy of data collection, just look at "don't ask, don't tell." One of the factors that set it apart from other pieces of LGBT equality legislation was the fact that discharges were tracked every year by the Pentagon, giving repeal advocates the power of tangible and widely reported numbers to reference during the debate.

Similar to data collection, requiring all governmental contractors to have LGBT discrimination protections would have sweeping effects far beyond the federal government. While federal employees comprise about 1.4 percent of the nation's workers according to the Partnership for Public Service, federal contractors employ approximately 22 percent of the American workforce according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Colorado Congressman Jared Polis last week endorsed the idea of an executive order requiring federal contractors to have LGBT job bias protections, according to the Washington Blade. The president has strongly supported the principle of fair employment practices and the administration's transition website even pledged that President Obama would pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Since that piece of legislation is sure to languish for the next two years in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the president should promptly embrace the opportunity to do everything in his power to supply those protections through the executive branch.

The same is true for codifying gender identity protections via executive order. Though transgender workers have been written into the Equal Employment Opportunity guidelines of the Office of Personnel Management (the human resources department for the federal government), an executive order would carry far more substantive and symbolic weight. 

Finally, prohibiting the government from using federal funds to discriminate against LGBT tax payers might seem unnecessary at first blush, but the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- created during the Bush administration and continued by President Obama -- has funding tentacles that stretch across America, sometimes touching rabidly homophobic organizations through grants that often go undetected.

While some reporting has already uncovered discriminatory abuses of federal funding, this is an area still ripe for inquiry. But for starters, Andy Kopsa of the Washington Independent documented the Iowa Family Policy Center, which publicly opposes same-sex marriage in the Hawkeye state, receiving more than $3 million in federal funding for its Marriage Matters program from 2004 through 2009 - a portion of which will continue to be dispersed through 2011.

Kopsa also reported that Project SOS, a Jacksonville-based outfit that teaches abstinence-only programming in public schools, received $454,000 in federal funding in September 2010. The curriculum taught by Project SOS has been called into question by multiple education organizations for relaying misinformation about HIV and AIDS.

With an executive order, President Obama could put a definitive end to this questionable conflation of church and state by following through on his campaign promise to end discriminatory practices in federal funding, especially where faith-based organizations are concerned.

"If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion," Obama said during a 2008 speech in Zanesville, Ohio. "Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs."

One glaring omission among the initiatives I have presented here is anything having to do with HIV/AIDS. This is an area that has become highly specialized and I believe there are people far more qualified than I to weigh in on overall funding levels as well as how that money should be allocated and to what effect.

A Higher Standard 

President Obama has amassed a lot of goodwill with progressive voters and LGBT constituents alike through his accomplishments for equality during the first half of his administration, but this is no time for equality advocates to relax into complacency. I am reminded that immediately following the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, civil rights leaders went straight back to the streets, demanding that they be recognized as full citizens in every walk of American life.

In my opinion, LGBT advocates must be more vigilant and discerning than ever now. After the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its report recommending more data collection on the LGBT population, for instance, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement lauding the content as an "important step in identifying research gaps and opportunities." Data collection would arguably have the greatest impact of any innovation that could presently be made at HHS, but the department's press release gave no concrete commitments about how HHS would take action on the new intelligence. Sebelius said only, "We look forward to continuing our work to address these needs and reduce LGBT health disparities."

Some advocates will surely say I'm being nit-picky, that I'm simply looking for ways to poke at the administration. But I am not looking to diminish the administration's sizeable accomplishments to date. Rather I would like to hold them and us - as advocates - to a higher standard.

We did not achieve "don't ask, don't tell" repeal by being satisfied with White House Easter Egg roll invitations and passing mentions in a handful of speeches. Now is the time for the president to employ his considerable executive powers to effect a government-wide culture change that will trickle down to every corner of America. Let's not squander this opportunity to squeeze as much goodness out of this administration as possible, which in turn will help President Obama secure four more years in office.

Copyright © 2010 Equality Matters. All rights reserved.