What Gays Want From President Obama

Skeptical gay rights activists aren't satisfied with the forthcoming presidential memorandum ordering federal agencies to provide same-sex partners of government employees with some of the benefits previously reserved for heterosexuals. There is plenty of debate about whether Obama is actually expanding rules that agencies already enforce and have been enforcing since the early Clinton administration. Advocates for gay rights are passing around a link (http://www.obamasplanforgayrights.com/) to an Obama-esque website that purports to unveil his plan for gay rights. Clicking on the website leads you a page with one word: "Nothing."

A senior White House official, asked to respond to the site and its implications, said it was "unfair."  The official acknowledged the anger of gay activists but attributed it to perception and magical thinking about Obama's political priorities. Another senior administration official predicted confidently that "we'll turn this around."

What did the first official mean by magical thinking? (That phrase is mine, but I think it characterizes what officials are thinking about the gay rights activists.)  Activists, in the White House's view, are incorrectly interpreting Obama's silence as evidence that he does not care or is delaying action on gay rights matters for political reasons. The real reason is that Obama  has a lot to do, has prioritized his policies, and wants to tread carefully around cultural minefields, building consensus.  Still, it's true that long-time Democratic hands in the West Wing are concerned about pushing too hard, too fast, on cultural issues.

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John Berry, the gay director of the Office of Personnel Management, said that Obama's action today represents "long overdue progress in our long march to equality." Again, that's debatable. Long-term insurance isn't an item of concern.

What do gays want? They want the Recognizer in Chief, the Persuader in Chief, the Leader -- to recognize them. They want visibility; they want acknowledgment that Obama doesn't take their money and presidential support for granted; they want assurances -- words and deeds -- that Obama will fulfill his campaign promises. They want Obama to expend his political capital to get supermajorities in the Senate for legislation getting rid of the ban on gays in the military and ending discrimination against gays in the workplace.

Berry, who has become the administration's de-facto spokesman on gay issues, told reporters today that Obama's action was "the first step, not the final step.