April 12, 2012
By Scottie Thomaston
Yesterday, the news broke from the White House that the president refuses to sign an executive order that would prevent workers contracting with the federal government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Everyone seemed hopeful when it was announced yesterday morning that the White House convened a meeting with organizations closely associated with advocating for the executive order, but shortly after that announcement, the meeting’s attendees broke the news.
This had been one of the president’s longstanding campaign promises, back in 2008 he said he would implement a federal contractor executive order to protect LGBT people. The campaign said they supported a nondiscrimination executive order for all federal employees and federal contractors:
Obama, in responding to the group’s 2008 presidential candidate questionnaire, also stated that his campaign had a “written non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.” He added that “[a]n Obama White House will implement a similar non-discrimination policy.” In it, Obama states that he supported such a policy for all federal employees and, in a separate question, for all federal contractors.
As the New York Times notes, this is a change from his so-called “we can’t wait” campaign, which was designed in part to mitigate the negative effects of non-passage of certain necessary legislation due to Republican intransigence. And given the pressing need for antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people, since anywhere from 15 to 43 percent of gay people and 90 percent of transgender people report being discriminated against or harassed at their workplace, one would think a step toward showing the LGBT community that we’re headed in a direction where in the future we won’t face so much hatred where we work or are attempting to work might be a step the administration would consider taking.
In defense of his position on this issue, the White House notes the president’s support for ENDA legislation:
White House spokesman Shin Inouye, in response to a request from Metro Weekly, wrote, “The President is dedicated to securing equal rights for LGBT Americans and that is why he has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employers across the country from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
He added: “The President is committed to lasting and comprehensive change and therefore our goal is passage of ENDA, which is a legislative solution to LGBT employment discrimination — just as the President pressed for legislative repeal of DADT.”
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, of course, is not going to pass the Republican-controlled House. It is unclear even how many House or Senate Democrats would be on board with passage of this legislation. An executive order wouldn’t need to pass a majority of the House and get 60 votes in the Senate, it just needs one person’s signature. It doesn’t seem responsive to the current demands of our time to tell advocates that a piece of future legislation is supported and would be signed if it made it to the president’s desk. And while the order would not be quite as sweeping as the legislation, it would undoubtedly be an improvement over what people who are LGBT are facing in this country today. It would be a pragmatic step, a way to make a mark on antidiscrimination policy.
And with such a broad coalition of supporters – from progressive advocacy organizations to unions to LGBT organizations and non-LGBT organizations for racial minorities – one would think that politically this might not work out so well for the administration. Recently, 72 lawmakers had also pushed for the order.
This would have been a great step, including LGBT people in the campaign to get much needed administrative orders passed to change our living circumstances for the better, and showing that we can’t wait either.
UPDATE 1 (Scottie Thomaston): Today at the White House press briefing, Jay Carney was bombarded with eight minutes of tough questions about the executive order. Carney claims that they have a legislative strategy for ENDA that’s similar to the one they had for DADT.