Obama to sign LGBT nondiscrimination executive order

Photo: Barack Obama. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Photo: Barack Obama. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

President Barack Obama will take executive action to prohibit federal contractors from LGBT workplace discrimination.

According to a White House official, Obama has directed his staff to prepare an executive order for his signature prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity — a move long sought by LGBT-rights advocates that builds upon Obama’s legacy as the strongest LGBT ally to ever occupy the White House.

“The action would build upon existing protections, which generally prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” the White House official told Metro Weekly. “This is consistent with the President’s views that all Americans, LGBT or not, should be treated with dignity and respect.”

For more than two years Obama’s White House has been forced to defend a broken campaign promise made by Obama when he was a candidate for president in February 2008. It was then that Obama filled out a presidential-candidate questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus indicating he would support a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity for federal contractors. In April 2012 White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told leaders from some of the nation’s largest LGBT-rights organizations that Obama would not sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Since that meeting, the White House has sought to defend its decision by telling supporters and the press that Obama favors passage of comprehensive federal legislation in the form of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would protect nearly all workers, rather than just employees of federal contractors. That argument hasn’t sat well with LGBT activists, who have been some of the president’s most passionate defenders. They too support ENDA, but argue signing an executive order is necessary and a tangible step forward the president could take now. 

At the beginning of this year Obama announced a shifting strategy to use his pen to take executive action when Congress won’t act. While that strategy has been applied to minimum wage, with Obama signing an executive order to raise minimum wage for federal contractors while the White House still pushes for federal legislation raising the minimum wage for all Americans, and to narrowing the income gap between genders, the White House has found itself in a contradictory position on the executive order for LGBT federal contractors. Asked in February by Metro Weekly why sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors if the strategy is comprehensive federal legislation, White House press secretary Jay Carney responded simply, “I take your point.”

That puzzling position grew more complicated last month after Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview with The Huffington Post said he did not see “any downside” to signing such an order, but reiterated the need to pass ENDA. The Senate approved ENDA 64-32 last November, but the the bill has languished in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives where Speaker John Boehner has voiced his opposition to the bill and refused to allow it to come up for a vote, although the bill has continued to gain bipartisan support as recently as last week.

“The President has declared 2014 a year of action – vowing to use the power of his pen and phone to take action on behalf of the American people to strengthen the economy and the middle class,” the White House official said. “His actions have been driven by the core American principle that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should have the opportunity to succeed, and that your ability to get ahead should be determined by your hard work, ambition, and goals – not by the circumstances of your birth, your sexual orientation or gender identity.”

It is not yet clear when Obama will sign the executive order, but with an appearance scheduled Tuesday at the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT gala in New York City and the White House’s annual LGBT Pride Month reception set for June 30, it seems likely Obama will address his decision to sign the executive order in the coming days.

When Obama does attach his signature to that executive order, it will further cement his legacy on LGBT rights. The first sitting American president to openly endorse same-sex marriage, he has all but ensured that a Democrat will never again be able to run for the White House without supporting marriage equality. Under his direction, Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation’s first African-American attorney general, and the Justice Department ceased defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in federal court. When the Supreme Court heard arguments in same-sex marriage cases for the first time in March 2013, Obama’s solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, urged the Supreme Court justices to strike down DOMA as well as California’s same-sex marriage ban. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bears his signature, and the White House has indicated his openness to at least a review of the military’s existing ban on transgender service. And early on Obama endorsed ENDA and promised to sign it into law when it reaches his desk.

“President Obama is proud of the accomplishments he and his Administration have made to advance and promote equality, justice, and dignity for all members of the LGBT community,” the White House official said. “From signing an inclusive Hate Crimes law to passing the Affordable Care Act, from reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act with provisions to protect LGBT victims to ensuring equality in federal housing, we have taken many important steps forward. While work remains to ensure that all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are equal under the law, we look forward to continuing to make progress in the months and years ahead.”

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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