Obama Extends Benefits To Gay Federal Workers
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Today, President Obama is granting federal employees who are gay or lesbian some of the benefits that married couples get. That executive order comes in the face of anger among gays and lesbians.
As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, many feel the president has not done enough to promote gay rights.
TOVIA SMITH: The president's move allows same-sex partners to get some of what you may call the fringe fringe benefits of working for the federal government. It's not health care or life insurance, but rather things like using sick time to care for a same-sex partner. Or, in the case of Foreign Service employees, getting a same-sex partner medically evacuated from a foreign post.
Ms. JENNIFER CHRISLER (Executive Director, Family Equality Council): You know, I think this is an important step forward, but we have many other things that we need to address.
SMITH: Jennifer Chrisler is executive director of the Family Equality Council.
Ms. CHRISLER: There's only so much the president can do through a presidential memo, and there's a long country mile that we're going to need to walk down to get to the end of the road.
SMITH: The White House says further benefits would require legislation and repeal of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. Office of Personnel Management director John Berry insists repealing DOMA is on the president's agenda.
Mr. JOHN BERRY (Director, Office of Personnel Management): This is an example of practicing before preaching, and I believe the president is taking bold action to do just that to get the federal house in order.
SMITH: But the extra benefits announced today are little comfort to some gay activists.
Mr. DAVID MIXNER (Gay Activist): What that says is is that we can have time off to be by our dying partner's side, but by the way, our health insurance won't cover those hospital bills. It makes a mockery. It's an insult.
SMITH: Gay activist David Mixner says the Obama administration is trying to have it both ways, blaming DOMA for limiting its options while also defending DOMA against a legal challenge in court. Mixner says he knows the administration has to defend the law, but not necessarily so vigorously.
Mr. MIXNER: It's just absurd. I mean, do they really expect us to buy this?
SMITH: Mixner was so angry after he read the administration's legal briefs defending DOMA that he backed out of a big Democratic fundraiser.
Mr. MIXNER: I've had enough. I'm 63 years old, and I want to know what it's like to have all the rights and privileges as other Americans before I die.
SMITH: Gay activists plan to picket the fundraiser. Furniture businessman Mitchell Gold says he will go inside but only so he can express his frustration in person. He says President Obama needs to feel the pressure from the folks who helped elect him.
Mr. MITCHELL GOLD (Furniture Businessman): I think his heart is in the right place, but I think he's politically afraid of the black clergy and of white clergy who are anti-gay, and it is time to stand up and that's what he promised us when he ran for office.
SMITH: Others are more forgiving of the president. Congressman Barney Frank insists Obama is pushing as hard as he can on DOMA and other issues.
Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): This is a tough political fight we're in, and simply complaining that things weren't done within the first five months of a new administration that takes office in the midst of a bunch of crises doesn't advance the goal at all.
SMITH: Frank says expectations are unrealistic. Candidate Obama did say he opposed gay marriage. Frank says he believes it's what he had to say to get elected, but no one should expect an immediate about-face now.
Rep. FRANK: It's not seemly. It's not appropriate to say, okay, election's over, fooled you, I changed my position.
SMITH: Meantime, President Obama is also taking heat from opponents of gay marriage who say today's move goes too far. As one activist put it, the president is ignoring the law just to, quote, "placate an angry portion of his base."
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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