Obama pressed to ban antigay bias by contractors

Friday, May 11th, 2012   Share on Facebook   Share on Twitter

Now that President Obama has taken his boldest and riskiest stance on gay rights to date by endorsing same-sex marriage, advocates say it’s time to keep a 4-year-old campaign promise to sign an executive order banning antigay discrimination by federal contractors.

Job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is already illegal in Washington, D.C., and 21 states, including California. A presidential order would protect employees of contractors hired by the federal government in the other 29 states.

A nondiscrimination order “would give concrete, real-life workplace protections to people who work for federal contractors like ExxonMobil that refuse, year after year, to add those protections on their own,” said Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEqual, one of several gay rights groups pressing for action on the issue.

Two weeks ago, she said, former Bay Area activist Cleve Jones approached Obama and handed him a binder with more than 40 stories of workplace discrimination to help make the case for presidential action. Obama accepted the binder without saying anything, Cronk said.

Worker harassed

One case that captured public attention involved DynCorp International, a military contractor based in Virginia, whose laws are silent on antigay bias. DynCorp agreed in January to pay $155,000 to settle a civil rights complaint on behalf of aircraft mechanic James Friso.

While stationed in Iraq, Friso – who is heterosexual and married – said he was regularly called “faggot,” “queer” and similar names by a male co-worker. When he complained, he said, the company simply transferred him to another post and did nothing to his co-worker.

DynCorp did not acknowledge any wrongdoing in the settlement, but a month later adopted a companywide ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Federal contractors employ tens of millions of Americans to build everything from roads and dams to missiles and satellites. They’ve been subject to presidential antidiscrimination orders since 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt barred racial and religious discrimination by military contractors, 23 years before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Since then, presidents have issued at least a half-dozen similar orders.

Obama once promised to follow in their path. As a candidate in 2008, he told a gay rights group in Houston that he would support a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by government contractors, according to a document unearthed recently by the gay publication Metro Weekly.

Spurred by the DynCorp case and others, gay rights groups have held several meetings with administration officials and came away saying they were encouraged that an executive order was imminent.

But on April 11, Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett told advocates that the president had no immediate plans to outlaw job discrimination on his own. Press secretary Jay Carney elaborated at the next day’s White House media briefing.

Legislation instead

Carney said Obama “is committed to securing equal rights” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans and has long supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect all LGBT employees, public and private.

Rather than issuing an executive order, Carney said, “the approach we’re taking at this time is to try to build support for passage of this legislation, a comprehensive approach.”

What he didn’t mention is that the legislation has no chance of passing in the current Congress. Even when Democrats controlled both houses in 2009-10, Obama’s first years in office, the bill had hearings in House and Senate committees but was not brought up for a vote, despite testimony in support of it from Obama administration officials.

An executive order, on the other hand, needs no congressional approval.

A presidential decree would apply not only to the 10.5 million employees who work on federal contracting projects but also to everyone else who works for those employers – an additional 17.5 million, according to a study in February by M. Lee Badgett, research director of the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA.

About 60 percent of them are already covered by state laws or company policies against antigay discrimination, Badgett said, and 41 percent are similarly protected against discrimination based on gender identity by laws in California and 15 other states in addition to Washington, D.C.

But for millions of contractors’ employees, an executive order would have an immediate and far-reaching effect – at little or no political cost, according to its advocates, who say polls show strong public support.

Obama’s silent refusal to act last month brought immediate protests.

‘Turned his back’

Log Cabin Republicans, the gay rights group that led the legal fight against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” exclusion of openly gay and lesbian military personnel, said Obama had “turned his back on 1.8 million LGBT workers” and “failed to deliver on a policy that has broad, bipartisan support among the American people.”

Tico Almeida, who as a congressional staffer helped to draft the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and now heads a group called Freedom to Work, called Obama’s inaction “a political calculation that cannot stand” and announced a campaign to pressure the president on the issue.

He said the effort received an immediate $100,000 contribution from liberal donor Jonathan Lewis, who accused Obama of “craven election-year politics.”

But a number of advocates have softened their tone in recent weeks, particularly after Obama’s historic endorsement Wednesday of equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

“Because President Obama has such an exceptionally strong record on LGBT equality,” Almeida said after the announcement, “I remain confident that he will sign an executive order in the next few months, and if not, then fairly soon after the election.”

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