Few were shocked that Barack Obama's order last week extending some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees drew howls of protest from religious conservatives. They've long criticized what Family Research Council President Tony Perkins calls the president's "aggressive pro-homosexual agenda."
What was surprising was that the order elicited as much disappointment as praise from the gay rights movement, where many activists described it as a half-hearted gesture from a president who claims to be a "fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans." The White House action "inches our federal government closer to nondiscrimination," says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. But she adds that "much more remains to be done for the administration to live up to the promises of equality the president made as a candidate."
The move comes amid a rising chorus of discontent from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, a key portion of the Democratic base, over a string of letdowns from the White House. Gay rights activists were outraged recently when the administration filed a legal brief supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a women and which Obama hasvowed to repeal. Obama hasn't moved to end the military's "don't ask, don't tell," policy, despite promises to do so. And many gays and lesbians remain hurt by his invitation to evangelical pastor Rick Warren, a high-profile gay marriage opponent, to his inauguration. In an angry letter to Obama this week, top gay rights advocate Joe Solmonese wrote that "we clearly have not been heard, and seen, as what we . . . are: human beings whose lives, loves, and families are equal to yours."
The White House denied speculation that last week's action on federal benefits was aimed at tamping down gay and lesbian complaints. Obama's memo extends certain benefits, including long-term care insurance, to gay partners of federal employees and allows them to use sick leave to care for domestic partners. But it falls short of offering full benefits, including health insurance. That can happen only through legislation, which Obama endorsed. "It's a day that marks a historic step towards the changes we seek," the president said, "but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step."
Obama's defenders say he doesn't want to risk a bold move on gay rights—like attempting to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act—lest it ignite a culture war that derails his broader agenda. Still, conservative Christian groups decried the White House memo as a violation of that law and as an attempt to engineer marriage like arrangements for gay federal employees. "Marriage provides uniquebenefits to individuals, families, and society that cannot be replicated by any other living arrangements," says Wendy Wright, president of the conservative Concerned Women for America.
But a Gallup Poll last month found that, while most Americans oppose legalized gay marriage, two thirds support health insurance and other benefits for gay and lesbian domestic partners. The same poll reported that 69 percent of Americans favor gays openly serving in the military. Which only adds to the gay rights movement's frustrations with a White House that's inching along on their issues.