A long-overdue step

A LONG-OVERDUE STEP…. Facing intense criticism from supporters of gay rights, President Obama is poised to take a step that the federal government should have taken years ago.

Faced with growing anger among gay and lesbian supporters, President Obama is expected tonight to extend healthcare and other benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.

His action is a significant advance for gay rights and comes days after the Obama administration sparked outrage by filing a legal brief defending the law forbidding federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Obama opposed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act during his presidential campaign.

It was not immediately clear whether Obama’s latest decision would mollify his critics.

The responses to the announcement have, thus far, suggested the administration still has quite a bit more work to do. Some supporters of gay rights have looked at the president’s decision as a step in the right direction, but most of the reactions I’ve seen point to widespread dissastisfaction, with some labeling the announcement “irrelevant” and others arguing the administration is “throwing us a pathetic bone.”

The context, of course, makes all the difference. If the White House had made this announcement in, say, January, the reception from supporters of gay rights would likely have been far more enthusiastic. But after nearly five months in office, Obama has repeatedly disappointed gay rights advocates, following delays in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and a legal defense on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act last week. Justice Department attorneys said they are legally obligated to defend DOMA in court as long as it’s on the books, but those who’ve read the administration’s legal brief were deeply insulted by the attorneys’ arguments. For that matter, Obama is on record saying he’d like to see DOMA repealed, but there’s been no progress on that front since the president took office in January.

This isn’t to say the White House hasn’t made some positive moves. As administration officials are quick to remind civil rights proponents, Obama has “named openly gay men to head the Export-Import Bank and the Office of Personnel Management. The State Department promised to give partners of gay and lesbian diplomats benefits such as diplomatic passports and language training. In April, gay parents were invited for the first time to bring their children to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.” There was also a strong presidential proclamation in support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.

What’s more, Obama hasn’t actually changed his position on any of the issues from the campaign — he still supports repealing DADT, he still wants to see the Defense of Marriage Act rescinded, and the administration still supports an updated hate crimes bill that includes sexual orientation.

But the frustration is nevertheless palpable and patience is wearing thin. Today’s gesture is a step, but it’s only a step, in addressing the rift with supporters.