President Obama on Monday signed the executive order barring anti-gay bias by federal contractors that many of us have written about and asked him for since 2008 when he first promised to do it. We need to thank him for keeping his promise and taking another step toward securing full civil and human rights for the LGBT community. We have come a long way during his presidency.
This executive order is not a new initiative. What the president has done is to add sexual orientation and gender identity to a list of protected categories that were applied to federal contractors in an executive order first approved by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. As reported in The New York Times, "He is also adding gender identity as a protected category to a 1969 directive by President Richard M. Nixon that applies to federal employees, which was later amended by President Bill Clinton to include sexual orientation."
This is a great step forward but it appears that while this EO applies to federal contracts it does not apply to federal grants whose criteria are usually left to each individual agency. The LGBT community takes heart that we have been heard and the EO does not carve out any new religious exemptions that don't already exist for other protected categories. It is estimated this executive order applies to 24,000 companies that are designated as federal contractors and whose 28 million workers make up about a fifth of the American workforce.
Monday's signing was done against a backdrop of the fight for legislation including ENDA ongoing for many years. That fight and the issue of exemptions for religious organizations have been impacted by the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The first comprehensive legislation to ban discrimination against the LGBT community was introduced by Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) in 1974. That legislation didn't pass and there has ensued a long and sometimes bitter battle to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which first passed the House of Representatives in 2007 but didn't get through the Senate. This past year, it passed the Senate but looks like it will fail in the House so we will be back to square one in the next Congress.
President Obama ran in 2008 and made a number of promises to the LGBT community including repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and signing this executive order to get support in the election and it clearly worked. The problem many in the community have had is that every move forward on his part including making these issues a priority once he was in office seemed to coincide with a difficult election, either the mid-term congressional or his own reelection. Forward momentum seemed designed politically to recharge and energize the LGBT community to vote in and raise more money for a coming election. That strategy has worked and includes his well-timed decision to evolve, or as some suggested revolve, as he once before did support it, on the issue of marriage equality.
As someone deeply involved in the political process for more than 40 years, I find this strategy understandable. As an activist it is my hope as we move beyond the Obama presidency we will move LGBT issues away from being just a political football and that they will be as ingrained in the continuing fight for civil and human rights as are the fights for the civil rights of African Americans and women's rights. We also need to move the fight for immigration reform away from the politics of the moment to the politics of full inclusion.
President Obama will always be seen as a hero to the LGBT community for how far we have come during his presidency. He is by nature a decent man. But let us hope that his elections will be the last in which the issues of full civil and human rights for the LGBT community are even debated in the Democratic Party. Unfortunately at this time we can't say the same for the Republican Party but we can always hope for a better future even there.
We know as we have seen the arc of history with regard to civil rights and women's rights that we will always have to be vigilant to maintain any forward momentum. But that will be a different fight thanks to this president.
This column first appeared in the Washington Blade.