Obama’s (Mini) Down Payment on Gay Rights: Federal Domestic Partner Benefits
The issue of causation confounds philosophers and scientists alike, but allow me to identify one instance of clear cause-and-effect that few would dispute: The furor over the DOJ’s filing of the motion to dismiss in the DOMA case — not to mention the hemorrhaging of financial support for the upcoming DNC fund-raiser — led directly to President Obama’s actions tonight. Here’s what happened:
The actual legal step is teensy. Federal employees get a few crummy benefits; not the truly valuable stuff like health care or retirement benefits. Obama barely mentions the benefits he’s able to confer with the stroke of a pen, because they’re mostly peanuts. (Not to those directly affected, though. During Equality Forum, I spoke to Michael Guest, the moderator of a panel on LGBT Rights and Challenges in Russia. Guest is the former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, and he discussed his constant frustration with how his same-sex spouse couldn’t do any of the simple things that spouses of opposite-sex couples could, including attending basic learning sessions on “do’s and “don’t’s” for spouses living in other countries. My conversation with Guest is worth its own post; maybe someday soon….)
But Obama’s action wasn’t about these benefits; they were just the handiest vehicle for his now desperately needed effort to calm the LGBT community. There were two ways for him to have done so: He could have delivered a major, sweeping speech on gay rights, with a mea culpa for the vilified DOJ brief (for which he’s ultimately accountable). In my fantasy world, I still hope that he might deliver such a speech, and a few posts ago, I took the liberty of writing one for him. The model for that is the “race speech” he gave last year here in Philadelphia.
This brief signing ceremony cum photo op was the alternative. It wasn’t a grand “gay rights” speech, focusing instead on DOMA — not coincidentally, the act that was the subject of the recent firestorm — and on the smaller steps, like the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, that could be taken leading up to DOMA’s repeal.
Given its focus on DOMA, as a short speech it was good. He neither apologized for nor explained the DOJ brief, but he did acknowledge that he hadn’t done anything yet: “Among the steps we have not taken is repeal of DOMA.” He then reminded us that, yes, he still supports repealing a statute that is “discriminatory” and “interferes with states’ rights.”
The “states’ rights” reason is important to the legal ear. Recall that DOMA does two things: It allows states to refuse recognition of sister states’ same-sex marriages, and denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples even if validly married in their home states. The DOJ’s argument in defense of the second provision was the one that drew all of the outrage, arguing, as it did, that the government shouldn’t spend federal tax money on the “novelty item” that is same-sex marriage, and (incredibly) that same-sex couples weren’t being discriminated against by being excluded from federal benefits. Tonight, Obama effectively stepped back from these arguments by saying that DOMA should be repealed precisely because it doesn’t respect a state’s decision to confer the status of marriage on same-sex couples. Not bad, although likely lost on non-lawyers (unless you are lucky enough to be reading this!)
Beyond DOMA, his rhetoric was more general, and — happily! — more reminiscent of his campaign’s. There’s “more work to do to ensure that government treats all of its citizens equally.” He’s committed to fighting “injustice and intolerance in all its forms to bring about that more perfect union.” There, he consciously echoed the race speech, which began with this quote from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” (The speech also ended with the idea of “perfecting” that union.)
And then, in further answer to the question: “What the hell are you doing on LGBT issues?”, he committed his administration to working “tirelessly” to secure the repeal of DOMA.
Will this action succeed in quelling the outrage? It’s impossible to tell at this point. For once, I’ve purposely refrained from reading other blogs before posting this, because I wanted to voice my own first reaction, unaffected by the cacophony that’s surely out there. My guess is that it buys him a little time — not much — to actually start working on the signature LGBT issues of his campaign. If DOMA gets moved to the front of the pack (ahead of supposedly easier sells, like hate crimes and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), that would be real progress.
But the honeymoon is over.