Obama drawing criticism from gay supporters

Thursday, June 18, 2009

WASHINGTON -- President Obama signaled to gay rights activists Wednesday that he's listening to their priorities by extending some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. But he didn't give them even close to everything they want, bringing growing anger against the president to the surface.

Obama aides urged gays and lesbians to have patience with the new White House's slow-and-steady approach to the politically charged topic. But his critics -- and there were many -- saw Wednesday's incremental move to expand gay rights as little more than pandering to a reliably Democratic voting bloc, with the primary aim not of making policy more fair but of cutting short a fundraising boycott.

"When a president tells you he's going to be different, you believe him," said John Aravosis, a Washington-based gay activist. "It's not that he didn't follow through on his promises, he stabbed us in the back."

Obama has refused to take any concrete steps toward a repeal of a policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, even though as a candidate he pledged to scrap the Clinton-era rules. He similarly has refused to step in and block the dismissal of gays and lesbians who face courts martial for disclosing their sexual orientation.

"People feel they're owed an apology," said Richard Socarides, a New York lawyer who advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues. "People in the gay community feel he over-promised and under-delivered. Now, with over 250 discharges from the military on his watch ... the grace period is over."

Trying to quell that anger, Obama was set on Wednesday to sign small changes in benefits available to same-sex couples. For instance, employees' domestic partners to be added to a government insurance program that pays for long-term conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease. They also would be allowed to take sick leave to care for a sick partner or non-biological child.

"This is a matter of fairness," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Partners, however, would not have access to primary health insurance or to pensions. Such a move would require action from Congress.

"If you really parse it, it seems to say the president directed some federal agencies to give some federal employees some federal benefits at some undisclosed time in the future," Aravosis said.

Several powerful gay fundraisers withdrew their support from a Democratic National Committee event scheduled for June 25 where Vice President Joe Biden is expected to speak. Their withdrawal comes after a handful of public missteps that White House officials concede were not handled with the best eye on public relations.

The breaking point came last week, when the administration defended the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to reject another state's legalized gay marriages and blocks federal Washington from recognizing those state-based unions. Overturning it is a top legislative target for gay activists. But Justice Department lawyers used incest as a reason to support the law.

Gibbs argued that the administration had no choice but to defend existing laws and said Obama still believes it should be repealed. But he also would give no specific time frame for doing that, or for overturning the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy in effect since 1993.

"We are working on a large amount of things," Gibbs said. "Of course I can understand their frustrations. ... But it is a priority of the president to get done."

Critics saw the Justice memo as evidence of Obama saying one thing and doing another.

"I was profoundly disappointed by this action, particularly coming from this administration," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay non-incumbent to win election to Congress. "I still take President Obama at his word that he is committed to the repeal ... I also recognize that he cannot do it alone."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., defended Obama against criticism that he has been slow to deliver on his campaign promises.

"The notion that if someone doesn't agree with you 100 percent, then you shouldn't be supportive of him -- versus someone who disagrees with you 100 percent -- is very bad politics," said Frank, who was the first openly gay man re-elected to Congress.

John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking gay official in the administration, said the president is doing the best he can while waiting for Congress to act.

"This is a first step," said Berry, who acknowledged that some of the benefits being put into place by the presidential memorandum already exist at some agencies. "Not a final step."

Associated Press writers Andrew Miga and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.

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Office of Personnel Management: www.opm.gov

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