After nearly a decade of outsider
status, gay and lesbian activists are once again being welcomed in
the halls of Congress and the White House. What do they plan on
doing with their new access? Lots, it seems.
Access is mostly concentrated in the
House of Representatives where three openly gay Democratic members –
Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Barney Frank of Massachusetts and
newly-elected Jared Polis of Colorado – form the backbone of the
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Equality Caucus.
While President Barack Obama has
pledged his support for gay rights, activists have begun to question
his loyalty to right wing groups doggedly opposed to gay rights.
Two bills that have passed the House
before but stalled due to a threatened Bush veto – hate-crimes and
a gay protections (ENDA) bill – will be reintroduced this spring.
“It's one thing to go through the
exercise of passing a bill through the House,” Baldwin told The
Hill. “It's another thing to pass it through the House and the
Senate and have it signed by the president.”
“This session is not a dress
rehearsal for future sessions. If these bills pass, they become
law,” Baldwin added.
The Matthew Shepard Hates Crime Act is
named after the University of Wyoming student who was beaten,
shackled to a post and left to die in a field by two men he had met
in a gay bar. It would expand the 1969 federal hate-crime law to
include crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and
ENDA seeks to prohibit discrimination
on the basis of sexual orientation in the area of employment. The
addition of gender identity to the bill has become a heated topic.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocate,
endorsed a non-inclusive version of the bill in 2007 that fizzled
after passing the House. This year, the group says it will only back
the bill if it is fully inclusive. But Democratic leaders say they
do not have the political muscle to move a trans-inclusive bill.
Another two bills will address benefits
being blocked by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the 1996 law
which defines marriage as a heterosexual union for the purpose of
federal agencies and allows states to ignore legal gay marriage.
Two senators – Joe Lieberman
(I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) – have joined two reps –
Baldwin and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) – in sponsoring a
measure that would extend marriage-like benefits to federal
employees. The bill is expected to be introduced next week.
“This is long overdue and I think
this is the year to do right by so many lesbian and gay workers with
partners,” Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill. “The federal
government is the nation's largest civilian employer, and it's about
time [gays and lesbians] receive these benefits.”
New York Rep. Jerry Nadler and Vermont
Senator Patrick Leahy, both Democrats, are sponsoring the Uniting
American Families Act (UAFA), a bill that would grant gay and
lesbian spouses the right to sponsor an immigrant for U.S.
citizenship. A topic Senator John Kerry has recently spoken out
The Democratic senator from
Massachusetts expressed his frustration at the law on the pages of
gay weekly Bay
“I support legislation to amend our
immigration laws [to allow gay spouses to sponsor an immigrant],”
Both measures attempt to legislate
exceptions to DOMA, but a Rep. Nadler-sponsored measure would
altogether repeal Section 3 of DOMA, the portion of the law that
applies to federal recognition of gay unions.
“Instead of killing the Defense of
Marriage Act with a bang, they plan on killing it with a whimper,”
said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs at the Family
Research Council, a group opposed to ending DOMA.
The fight for DOMA is likely to get
ugly. Social conservatives began preparing for the brawl even before
the president entered the Oval Office.
And a new front in the war against the
anti-gay ban opened just a couple weeks ago when eight married gay
couples and three surviving spouses from Massachusetts announced they
were suing the federal government for benefits being denied under
DOMA. They claim section 3 of DOMA discriminates against gay and
lesbian couples and is unconstitutional.
Finally, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a
Democrat from California, has introduced legislation that would
repeal “don't ask, don't tell,” the discriminatory law that
discharges military service members who do not remain quiet about
their sexual orientation or do not remain celibate.
Prior to Tauscher's announcement, Obama
officials appeared reluctant to take on the issue, calling instead
for a new Pentagon assessment before moving forward. But the day
after the announcement, White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor said the
president has “begun consulting with Secretary Gates and Chairman
Mullen so that this change is done in a sensible way that strengthens
our armed forces and national security.”