We may soon know whether Barack Obama will stand up for queer America or fold like so many politicians have before. The pressure of two recent court rulings, a lawsuit and new legislation—all challenging aspects of the Defense of Marriage Act—should push the Obama Administration to stop dithering around and do something.
The rulings came from San Francisco. Two judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that same-sex spouses of two court employees are entitled to federal health insurance benefits. The couples wed last year when California allowed same-sex marriages.
On Feb. 20, however, an official in the federal Office of Personnel Management told the court that DOMA forbid them from complying with the rulings, The New York Times reported. Only opposite-sex spouses qualify for benefits, wrote Lorraine E. Dettman, assistant director of the personnel office. Dettman is a longtime employee of the office and was not appointed by Obama.
The lawsuit came from Boston. Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed suit to overturn one section of DOMA. Filed on behalf of eight married couples and three surviving spouses, the suit targets the section blocking same-sex couples from receiving the same federal protections heterosexual couples enjoy.
These include Social Security spousal protections, employment and death benefits, the ability to file joint income taxes and the ability to obtain a visa for a non-citizen spouse, or to sponsor that spouse for citizenship. All of these protections are important, but the inability of lesbians and gays to sponsor their spouses for citizenship can be particularly tragic. If one spouse is an American citizen and the other isn’t, they have to decide whether to break up their family or leave the United States.
Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have introduced bills to tackle the immigration issue. DOMA is also facing a challenge from bills expected to be introduced by Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. These bills would grant domestic partners of federal workers the same benefits that spouses of heterosexual employees receive.
So far the Obama Administration’s only response to these events has been an eerie silence.
Although Obama was elected with the most pro-GLBT agenda in presidential history, his record has been mixed. Not a single anti-equality law has yet to be challenged or changed. No timetable has been announced to even start work on the pro-GLBT agenda the new administration touts on its web site. Not a single openly GLBT person was appointed to the cabinet.
The question now is what the Obama Administration will do next. Will it allow an assistant director’s pronouncement to stand and continue to deny health benefits to legally wed spouses in California? How will the administration answer the lawsuit filed in Boston? Will the administration champion the Nadler-Leahy and Baldwin-Lieberman bills in Congress, or pretend they don’t exist? Will the administration take on the politically incendiary task of dismantling DOMA, or will it continue to pat GLBT citizens on the head and tell us to sit down, be quiet and wait?
There are signs that Obama is inching toward the change we desperately need. The administration has endorsed a UN declaration calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. When the declaration was first presented in December, President George W. Bush refused to endorse it.
While GLBT people have been woefully absent from the cabinet, Obama has been appointing an increasing number to second and third-tier posts. Most significantly, Obama appointed National Zoo Director John Berry to lead the Office of Personnel Management. Lesbian Elaine Kaplan has been named general counsel to the personnel office.
This puts Berry and Kaplan on the front line of the tussle in California. Once he is confirmed, Berry also will become the lead defendant in the lawsuit filed in Boston. Both officials have strong records on GLBT rights. Kaplan is famous for publicly confronting a Bush official on job discrimination.
As the recession deepens and anger over bailouts and bonuses boils over, it might seem absurd to obsess over the fate of a single issue effecting as tiny a group as gay Americans. The New York Times journalist who reported the California story, for example, framed it as nothing more than an issue of politics. The stakes, the reporter wrote, were whether Obama would anger his liberal base or Republicans.
But for those of us whose lives are crippled by DOMA, the idea that our families are a mere political spat is not only ignorant, it is beyond insulting. Every day the Obama Administration dances around and fails to act, we suffer. The time for change is now.
Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, whose work has appeared in The Progressive, Salon.com, Ms, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication or at PoliticalIQ@qsyndicate.com.