In a high-profile meeting yesterday afternoon, top aides of President Obama* informed a group of lobbyists and advocates that his administration would not issue an executive order banning discrimination against LGBT people who work for federal contractors. Obama had campaigned in support of such an order back in 2008, but, according to meeting attendee and Center for American Progress executive vice president Winnie Stachelberg, the White House now espouses a “multipronged effort to better address workplace discrimination against gay and transgender Americans.”
Whatever that means.
To be fair, the administration also affirmed its support for the more comprehensive ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act), a bill that would prohibit hiring and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual or gender identity. But ENDA has been bouncing around Congress since 1994, and given the current toxicity of the congressional environment, its sudden passage does not seem likely. Which is why most people pushing for the executive order, including some of the president's own party colleagues, saw it as a natural step along the way—and a rather large one at that, given that around 16 million workers would be covered according to some estimates—to something better.
Unsurpisingly, LGBT advocates were less-than-thrilled with the news.
Charles Kaiser, a journalist and author of The Gay Metropolis, a history of gay life in the United States since 1940, was unsettled by the announcement. He recalled in an email that it was President Dwight Eisenhower who signed an executive order banning all federal agencies and all of their contractors from hiring gay people over a half-century ago.
“In 2012 it's outrageous that the current president is reluctant to sign an executive order that would do the opposite,” Kaiser added. “After getting Don't Ask, Don't Tell repealed, and refusing to defend DOMA in court, Obama has by far the best record on gay rights of any president. His decision to blemish that record this way is baffling and disturbing.”
Human Rights Campaign (HRC) president Joe Solmonese said in a statement that he was particularly shocked by the White House’s move considering the amount of evidence supporting the necessity of such a measure. “No similar executive order has ever had this kind of extensive research or factual basis established,” he said.
But in a high-stakes election year in which Obama is going to need the support of moderate voters and business interests resistant to further regulation, facts—especially ones concerning the difficulties that gay and transgender individuals can face in their work-lives every day—aren’t likely to count for as much as we might hope.
UPDATE: The New York Times has criticized the President's decision, calling it a "sin of omission." "His hesitation to ban gay bias by government contractors, like his continued failure to actually endorse the freedom to marry, feels like a cynical hedge," the editorial board writes.
*Clarification: This post originally suggested that President Obama, himself, informed lobbyists of the decision, when, in fact, top aides delivered the news.