Obama unveils LGBT priorities list

President-elect Barack Obama announced his plan for protecting and advancing LGBT rights last week, following to the letter the promises he made to the community during his campaign.

In eight bulleted points under the civil-rights section of his transition team’s Web site, Obama pledged that under his administration the LGBT community would see the passage of numerous initiatives that it has been working to secure for years.

Same-sex marriage has been a ubiquitous issue in the media in the past few weeks after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, as well as similar ballot initiatives in Florida and Arizona, that all banned same-sex marriage in their states’ respective constitutions.

Although Obama is not an advocate of same-sex marriage per se, he does pledge full support of federal legislation to sanction civil unions for same-sex couples.

“Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples,” the plan states. “These rights and benefits include the right to assist a loved one in terms of emergency, the right to equal health insurance and other employment benefits and property rights.”

In order to attain this goal, Obama plans to work for the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and the passage of other legislation to legalize civil unions that provide all the same rights and benefits of marriage. In the plan, Obama also restates his opposition to a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; in 2006, he voted against such a measure.

Ray Murphy, co-chair of Liberty City Democratic Club, said that while same-sex marriage has come to the forefront of the American consciousness recently, he thinks Obama should, and will, give first priority to the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals.

“The fight on marriage is obviously on the front burner for a lot of folks now, but my guess is that Obama will focus first on an issue that affects a far greater number in our community: employment nondiscrimination,” Murphy said. “The fact that we can still be denied work or fired from work for being queer, or for expressing gender differently, is a moral outrage and an economic injustice.”

The plan states that Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden are committed to passing an ENDA that offers protections based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. A version of ENDA that did not protect against discrimination based on gender identity passed in the House last November but has not yet been introduced to the Senate.

“While an increasing number of employers have extended benefits to their employees’ domestic partners, discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace occurs with no federal legal remedy,” the plan explains.

At least seven of the more than 300 people that Obama appointed to agency review panels on his own transition team last week are openly gay.

Obama appointees Fred Hochberg a businessman; and former San Francisco Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg and labor attorney Elaine Kaplan all served in high-level positions under former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Other out transition team members include Michael Guest, the former ambassador to Romania and dean of the Foreign Service Institute, who resigned last year because of what he said were unfair conditions for gay Foreign Service Officers and their partners; Rick Stamberg, president and CEO of online news publisher SmartBrief, Inc.; Brad Kiley, a representative of the Center for American Progress; and Thomas Soto, co-founder of investment fund Craton Equity Partners.

Transition team members are likely to be appointed to positions within the Obama administration in the coming months.

In the HIV/AIDS arena, Obama pledged that within his first year of presidency, he will incorporate the resources of a variety of federal agencies to create a comprehensive plan to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country.

According to the plan, “the strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. Obama will support common-sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception and distributing contraceptives through our public-health system.”

Referencing statistics that show women are contracting the disease at increasingly higher numbers each year, Obama also said he will continue to support programs and initiatives that aim specifically to empower women to fight the disease.

The agenda also prioritizes the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate-Crimes Act, which would include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal hate-crimes laws. Obama co-sponsored this legislation in the Senate.

The plan further advocates for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s 15-year-old ban on openly gay servicemembers.

“The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited,” the plan states. It goes on to detail that Obama will work with military leaders to bring about the ban’s repeal.

In a PGN interview earlier this year, Obama reiterated his commitment to ending the ban and said he wanted to build consensus on the issue with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Under the plan, Obama also pledges to ensure adoption rights for same-sex couples. Earlier this month, Arkansas voters approved a ballot initiative that prevents same-sex couples from adopting children or becoming foster parents.

“I am incredibly optimistic about President-elect Obama’s plans to expand rights for the LGBTQ community,” Murphy said.

But he noted that, as Obama has stressed in the past, positive social change requires the full participation of the entire community.

“Long-term change cannot come from one person. The LGBTQ community has to fight together for our rights, across gender, sex, class and race lines, and make sure that none of us get left behind.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].