By Lisa Keen
Suddenly, with little fanfare or notice, the signs of “change” for the LGBT community are beginning to appear in Washington. The Obama administration this week unveiled several new initiatives aimed at eliminating discrimination against LGBT people.
On Oct. 22, the Senate gave final approval to a long-sought measure to help fight hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Senate voted 68 to 29 on Thursday evening to approve the National Defense Authorization Act for 2010, a defense funding bill to which the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act had been attached in July. The House gave its final approval earlier this month.
There was some hostility expressed, even at this late point, for including the hate crimes provision in the funding bill. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during floor debate Thursday that he “strongly disagrees” with the measure in the bill because it is “non-germane, non-relevant.”
“What we are doing here is an abuse of the Senate process,” said McCain. The statement, of course, ignored years of non-germane amendments offered by Republican senators seeking anti-gay measures. But McCain insisted those past non-germane amendments were “nothing of the magnitude” of the hate crimes measure.
McCain said he was also opposed to the hate crimes measure itself because “I do not believe an expansion of the federal criminal code is necessary to cover a certain class of citizens from – quote – ‘perceived injustices,'” he said.
McCain and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) suggested the attachment of hate crimes to the DOD funding bill was an effort to avoid debate on the controversial measure. Sessions said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “insisted” the hate crimes measure be attached to the DOD authorization bill.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, refuted the arguments, noting that the Senate has adopted hate crimes legislation on a DOD funding bill three times before and that it voted specifically on the current hate crimes measure during consideration of the proposal to attach it to the DOD funding bill.
“It is highly appropriate for this law to be part of the National Defense Authorization Act,” Levin said in a statement. “The values our men and women fight for include tolerance and freedom from hate-inspired violence against our citizens. Indeed, hate crimes represent a dangerous variety of domestic terrorism while our troops fight terrorism overseas.”
The Senate first voted 64 to 35 on Thursday on a procedural motion allowing the Senate to proceed to consideration of the bill. Republicans voting for “cloture” included Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The lone Democrat voting against cloture was Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) did not vote.
The hate crimes provision accounts for about $5 million worth of funding inside the $681 billion defense bill.
The bill now goes to the president’s desk, where President Barack Obama is expected to sign it next week. Efforts to pass the measure in the past had been hampered by promises that then President George W. Bush would veto it.
Change in attitude
But the door that was closed to LGBT people under the Bush administration has clearly been opened under President Obama. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Oct. 21 that the department is establishing an annual grant of $250,000 to create “the nation’s first national resource center to assist communities across the country in their efforts to provide services and supports for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.”
A press release from HHS says that the office will provide “information, assistance and resources” to both LGBT and “mainstream” groups working with people 60 and older “to assist them in the development and provision of culturally sensitive supports and services” to LGBT people.
“The LGBT Center will also be available to educate the LGBT community about the importance of planning ahead for future long term care needs,” said the HHS press statement.
HHS estimates that between 1.5 million and 4 million LGBT people are 60 or older. The grant to establish an LGBT Resource Center will be awarded under the HHS’s Administration on Aging.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development also announced that same day that it will “propose new regulations will clarify family status to ensure its subsidized housing programs are available to all families, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The proposed new regulations, which must go through a period of public comment, seek also to require that HUD grant recipients comply with local and state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; and that applicants for federally insured mortgage loans are not discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
And HUD announced that it will launch a “first-ever national study of discrimination against members of the LGBT community in the rental and sale of housing.”
The new regulations and the study will both be “fast-tracked,” according to a statement issued by HUD Oct. 21. HUD noted that some local studies of housing discrimination against LGBT people have been undertaken. It cited a study by the Michigan Fair Housing Centers that found that nearly 30 percent of same-sex couples “were treated differently when attempting to buy or rent a home.”
“The evidence is clear that some are denied the opportunity to make housing choices in our nation based on who they are,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, in the statement, “and that must end. President Obama and I are determined that a qualified individual and family will not be denied housing choice based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The White House had no comment on the developments, but a number of organizations took some credit for the HUD and HHS proposals, having lobbied the administration for them from the start of the Obama administration. A “New Beginning Initiative,” by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and SAFE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), coordinated advocacy on LGBT aging issues within federal agencies. And the Human Rights Campaign included HUD proposals as part of its “Blueprint for Positive Change” document to the administration.
Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of Family Equality Council, a national LGBT group, said in a statement that she believes the HUD initiatives were in response to President Obama’s directive in June that all federal agencies identify opportunities for ensuring equality for LGBT people.
“We applaud Secretary Donovan for his leadership and President Obama for following through on his promise,” said Chrisler.
Ryan White reauthorized
Also this week, the House and Senate agreed upon and approved a final version of the HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act of 2009, enabling the program to be extended for another four years. The program provides medical care and medication to more than half a million people with low incomes to have HIV infection. The bill passed the Senate on Monday on the chamber’s unanimous consent agenda; it passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 408 to 9.
But, as The AIDS Institute was quick to note, re-authorizing the Ryan White program is step one; funding it is step two.
“We now must work with the administration and the Congress to properly fund the program,” said Institute Executive Director Michael Ruppal. “With state and local budget cuts, people losing their health insurance due to the economic downturn and expanded testing programs, additional federal resources will be a necessity.”
Ruppal said the House has proposed a $54 million increase in Ryan White’s current $2.2 billion budget; the Senate is proposing a $35 million increase. The full Senate has yet to vote on its appropriations. Ruppal characterized either proposed increase as “minimal.”
Many organizations and activists jumped to applaud the pro-LGBT developments this week.
Legal activist Nan Hunter, at hunterforjustice.com, said the HUD initiatives are “exactly the kind of progressive regulatory step that the administration should be taking” and said she hopes to see other agencies soon follow suit.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said, “We are so pleased that the Obama administration continues to express through both action and words that it is committed to making sure that all federal government programs are accessible to all people.”
Sharon J. Lettman, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, called the HUD initiative a “very positive development,” and expressed confidence “the LGBT community can look forward to from this President.”
Many continued to push for more.
Paul Sousa, head of a Massachusetts LGBT group called Join the Impact, said plans for a Oct. 23 protest outside a speech by President Obama in Boston would go forward. The developments this week, he said, “are definitely movement in the right direction” but do not quality Obama as a “fierce advocate” of LGBT equal rights. President Obama described himself as a “fierce advocate for gay and lesbian Americans” in December in defending criticism of his invitation to evangelical Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation.
Richard Socarides, a longtime gay Democratic activist who served in the Clinton White House, said he thinks this week’s developments are “terrific” and that the administration “deserves a lot of credit.” But, he added, “they need to focus now on ENDA, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and DOMA.”