Obama to give benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers

The president will sign a memorandum Wednesday; he's been under pressure from LGBT activists generally of late

Published June 17, 2009 5:01AM (EDT)

President Obama has been taking a lot of flak from gay activists recently. His hesitation on fulfilling a campaign promise and overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and his administration's recent legal defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act has the community hopping mad, and ready to do something about it -- organizing a boycott of an LGBT-oriented Democratic fundraiser, for instance.

So on Wednesday, Obama will take a first step, signing a memorandum that extends certain benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. The move was preordained -- the White House had already promised it to gay groups, Politico's Ben Smith reports -- but was apparently moved up in response to the criticism.

The early reaction, however, suggests that some people aren't going to be placated this easily, in part because it's unclear what, if anything, Obama's action will actually accomplish. An expert who spoke with the Advocate told the magazine that, because of DOMA, the memorandum won't be enough to grant same-sex couples healthcare or retirement benefits, for instance. There's also some question about whether the memorandum's effect would be permanent, or whether it would expire when Obama leaves office. 

"This is very nice -- I'm sure there's lots of gay federal employees who will appreciate these benefits, although it's not clear what benefits they're actually getting," Americablog's John Aravosis told Salon Tuesday night. But, he said, "Tomorrow night, from what they're talking about, sounds so irrelevant. It's not what people are angry about, and it still ignores [Obama's] commitments to the community ... Everyone I know has been saying for weeks that it feels like the 90's with [the administration] -- the way they're acting towards the gay community, the fear they have of doing anything politically for us."

Aravosis isn't alone in that sentiment. Smith quotes the the executive director of the Empire State Pride Alliance as saying, sarcastically, "Welcome to 1999. How revolutionary of the White House to give benefits to same-sex couples, when two-thirds of conservative Wall Street are already doing it. What an achievement." And on his blog, the prominent gay writer and radio host Michelangeo Signorile cited Smith's post, adding, "[T]he Obama administration is throwing us a pathetic bone: benefits for federal workers. Wow. Give me a break!"

The official announcement is slated to take place in the White House at 5:45 p.m. EDT Wednesday; only a limited number of reporters will be able to attend, no word yet on whether there'll be guests there for the signing.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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