UPDATE: Obama embraces incremental response to gay issues

By Phillip Elliott/The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is chipping away at his long list of promises to gay voters but has yet to win the enthusiastic backing of the reliably Democratic voting bloc.

The Obama White House has accomplished more than any other on gay rights, yet has drawn sharp criticism from some of those who stand to benefit from the president’s efforts.

Instead of the sweeping change gays and lesbians had sought, a piece-by-piece approach has been the administration’s favored strategy, drawing neither serious fire from conservatives nor lavish praise from activists.

The strategy was on display Tuesday as Obama hosted gay rights activists at the White House in recognition of gay pride month. “We’ve got a lot of hard work we’ve still got to do,” the president told them in the East Room, even while boasting of accomplishments including anti-hate crimes legislation and extending some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.

He promised to continue to fight for full benefits, including health care, for same-sex partners, and also pledged to make good on his campaign promise to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. That’s the 1993 law that allows gay people to serve only if they hide their sexual orientation.

Gay activists complaint that Obama hasn’t moved quickly enough on changing the policy. But it’s a promise, Obama said, “this administration is going to keep.”

At the same time Obama announced more small steps. He said he’d directed his Labor Department to broaden the definition of “son and daughter” so employers would be required to offer workers in same-sex relationships the right to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for partners’ newborns or to adopt.

The president also said that regulations would be issued to extend visitation rights at hospitals to same-sex partners, putting in place a policy change Obama already had announced. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is writing to hospitals to get them to enact the policy even before the regulations are finalized, Obama said.

Obama was greeted with cheers and thanks by the crowd Tuesday night. But some gay activists long ago stopped giving the president the benefit of a doubt.

“We still need laws passed that achieve what these minimal efforts attempt to do piecemeal,” said gay activist Lane Hudson.

Even Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who helped write the original family leave law the Labor Department expanded, praised the directive yet called it “just one more step on the long haul towards guaranteeing equal rights'” for the gay community

“There are still too many obstacles, laws and regulations that restrict the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, and we must keep up the fight to break down those barriers to equality,” Dodd said in a statement that underscored the impatience, even from Obama’s allies.

For instance, Obama signed a hate crimes bill into law, expanded benefits for partners of State Department employees and ended the ban on HIV-positive persons from visiting the United States. He referenced families with “two fathers” in his Father’s Day proclamation last week and devoted 38 words of his State of the Union address to repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

“At the end of the day we’re on the path toward repeal,” said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is trying to end the military ban.

“Initially, we saw the president and his team were a bit cautious and measured, I think in large part because they didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Clinton administration. That was understandable. But we’re long past that,” Sarvis said.

There’s reason for the frustration.

Fulfilling the goal of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” appears years away, despite a vote in the House in support of repeal once the Pentagon has completed a study. In a legal brief, Obama’s Justice Department cited incest as a reason to defend the traditional definition of marriage, prompting some gay donors last year to boycott the Democratic National Committee. And just last week, a committee at his Health and Human Services Department recommended the nation retain its policy barring gay men from donating blood.

Obama’s allies say the small-bore changes are the best activists can hope for even though Democrats control the White House, Senate and House.

“People wrongly assume that having Democratic majorities in Congress means that your legislative goals will be met,” said Fred Sainz, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign, Washington’s largest gay rights organization. “That’s not the case.”

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Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.