Obama and the Gay Rights Agenda

by Michael Branson

Last Wednesday, October 22, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The Act expands the 1969 federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by the victims’ gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. In addition, the bill, which stalled in Congress two years ago because of a veto threat by President Bush, gives federal prosecutors increased authority to aid local law enforcement in the prosecution of hate crimes against gay and transgender people and provides federal funding for state and local agencies to investigate and prosecute such crimes, among other provisions. The law is also the first that provides federal legal protections of any sort to the transgender community.

This legislation marks a step forward in the fight for gay rights, including gays and lesbians under federal hate crimes protections more than a decade after the murders of its namesakes. Expanding hate-crimes legislation is the first achievement the Obama administration can point to in its attempts to appease a gay community that has become restless with the administration’s slow pace in following through on campaign promises to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The administration surely hopes that the well-covered Matthew Shepard Act signing ceremony, which was attended by both the Shepard and Byrd families, will buy it some time.

The Obama administration should not rest on its laurels, though, and gay rights activists should (and will) continue to apply pressure on the administration to repeal DADT and DOMA. The repeal of DOMA is of particular importance as Maine votes on November 3 whether to ban same-sex marriages in the state and the District of Columbia inches toward allowing gay couples to marry within city limits. By denying federal benefits to same-sex couples married in states that allow the practice, DOMA gives credence to those who argue that gay marriage is unnecessary where civil-union laws are intact. Also, with two active wars and the president weighing the possibility of a troop surge in Afghanistan, it seems silly to allow a policy to continue that discharges high-performing troops (and sought-after Arab linguists like Lt. Dan Choi).

Although it may not be politically expedient for Obama, the climate for repealing these policies will most likely get worse, not better, over the coming years. Democratic losses in the House and Senate are almost assured in the 2010 midterm election (as is to be expected for a party that has controlled Congress for four years and the White House for two), and the president’s approval ratings have begun to dip over the past few months (the result of a bruising health care battle and a natural decline after the honeymoon period). These trends are all the more reason for activists to demand that the administration focus on these issues sooner rather than later.

While the Matthew Shepard Act is an important first step, the Obama administration still has a way to go in ensuring equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans and following through on the president’s campaign promise to be a “fierce advocate” for the gay community. Let’s hope he doesn’t stop here.

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