In his State of the Union Address last week, President Obama celebrated Congress’s recent repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy: “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.” It should be obvious to all of us that elections matter and can have significant consequences for issues that are important to our community. Now, it’s time for us to consider the state of the LGBT union in 2011.
Surveying the political landscape in January 2010, few observers could have predicted that a Republican tidal wave would soon wash over the nation and our state. The November elections, of course, resulted in GOP control of the U.S. House and Republican gains in the Senate, while here in Michigan, Republicans won every statewide office and majorities in both houses of the legislature. This year begins with a very challenging political reality when it comes to issues of LGBT equality.
At the federal level, any efforts to move forward on passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act or repeal of the “Defense of Marriage Act” are stalled now that the Republicans control the U.S. House. This new legislative reality puts pressure on the president to take executive action on behalf of LGBT Americans. The Obama Administration has begun to use executive power more assertively to protect LGBT citizens. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed a new rule that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in HUD-sponsored housing or Federal Housing Administration -insured mortgages. The U.S. State Department recently announced that it would use a more gender-neutral form for passports in recognition that many children are raised by same-sex couples. Additionally, it is now easier for transgender citizens to change the gender identity on their U.S. passports.
The federal courts are currently considering several cases dealing with equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples. President Obama, who has long supported civil unions for gay couples, has recently softened his opposition to legal same-sex marriage. This year will present important opportunities for the Obama Administration to demonstrate its commitment to LGBT equality as it deals with challenges to DOMA. As the leader of the executive branch, the president is legally required to defend the law in court. However, the administration has the ability to follow a legal defense that minimizes its support for DOMA and maximizes the possibility that federal courts will overturn the law.
In Michigan, though the political terrain for LGBT equality is treacherous, progress is not impossible. Last week, the Michigan Civil Service Commission voted to grant domestic partner benefits to same-sex (and opposite-sex) partners of state employees. Unfortunately, Governor Snyder, who has styled himself a political moderate, spoke out in opposition to the commission’s action. Thankfully, Snyder does not have constitutional authority to veto this decision.
Meanwhile, anti-bullying legislation is still in limbo in the legislature. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights, whose director is officially part of the governor’s cabinet, recently held hearings on the topic of bullying in schools. While the governor doesn’t directly appoint the head of this department, Snyder should carefully consider the results of its anti-bullying hearings. Anti-bullying should not be a partisan political issue; it affects students of all backgrounds in Michigan.
Unfortunately, one of the governor’s early political appointments does not fit with his “moderate” credentials. Snyder selected Michigan Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan to be the new director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, the agency that implements family and child welfare services and programs in our state. Over the years, Corrigan has been a strong opponent of adoptions by LGBT couples. Her appointment to this new position is a cause for concern to Michiganders who care about equal rights for all our families.
As we move into this year, it is important to keep up the pressure on the Obama Administration to continue moving forward on LGBT equality, including full implementation of the DADT repeal. In Michigan, we should work hard to lobby our new governor to do the right thing on issues of equal rights, and not kowtow to the right-wing of his party. The coming year will require persistent vigilance by all people who genuinely care about protecting the rights of all citizens. Ultimately, while 2011 will likely be challenging for our community, it can also be a time of progress.
Urge President Obama to pursue a minimalist legal strategy in defending the “Defense of Marriage Act,” consistent with his own opposition to the law:
White House switchboard: 202-456-1414
Michigan Department of Civil Rights link on bullying forums:
Urge Governor Snyder to support Senate Bill 45, comprehensive anti-bullying legislation:
Constituent services: 517-335-7858