Obama to sign order supporting gay workers. Why now?

President Obama will soon sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against gays, lesbians, and others based on their sexual orientation. The gay-rights lobby has long wanted this measure. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
President Barack Obama speaks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Friday. President Barack Obama plans to sign an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation, a White House official said Monday.

President Obama will soon sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation, the White House signaled Monday.

The gay rights community has long urged such a move, but Mr. Obama had held off in the hope that Congress would act on a broader measure to protect all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) workers from employer discrimination. Now Obama appears to have concluded Congress won’t act, following the defeat last week of House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia to a tea-party backed candidate in his GOP primary.

Congressman Cantor’s shocking defeat is widely seen as a harbinger of even deeper gridlock in Congress and bodes ill for congressional action on other issues as well, such as immigration reform and the federal minimum wage. The pending legislation barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA.

“The president has directed his staff to prepare for his signature an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” a White House official said in a statement.

“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 statement continued. “This is consistent with the president’s views that all Americans, LGBT or not, should be treated with dignity and respect.”

Obama’s move on gay rights may be aimed in part at energizing Democratic voters ahead of the November elections. At fundraisers, the president often bemoans his party’s inability to turn out voters in midterms. In the 2010 midterms, the Democrats suffered a “shellacking,” as Obama put it, and lost control of the House. This November, control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

Advocates of comprehensive immigration applauded the White House’s announcement on gay rights, and then effectively said, “Now us.” The president has been considering execution action to help some undocumented immigrants, but had held off on a review of options by the Department of Homeland Security to encourage Congress to act.

The White House said Obama would sign the executive order on workplace discrimination the day before he speaks at a fundraiser by the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT council. But it did not name a date.

The director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Anthony Romero, called the announcement “historic.”

“President Obama’s commitment to LGBT equality will be one of his lasting legacies,” said Mr. Romero in a statement. “This president has done more for the struggle for LGBT equality than all previous presidents combined.”

Romero added that American presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have “eradicated taxpayer-funded discrimination in the workplace” for more than 70 years.

“Issuing this executive order will build upon a tradition that dates back to President [Franklin] Roosevelt’s 1941 order conditioning defense contracts on an agreement not to discriminate based on race, creed, color, or national origin,” he said. “Barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity with taxpayer funds by all federal contractors will begin to undo one of the last vestiges of legally sanctioned discrimination."

Obama wasn’t always the gay-rights movement’s best friend. As a first-time presidential candidate, he opposed same-sex marriage, supporting civil unions instead. Throughout most of his first term, Obama held firm in that position, though at gay-rights functions he assured this heavily Democratic constituency that by the end of his presidency, gay-rights advocates would be happy with him.

The White House’s standard line was that Obama’s views were “evolving.” But in May 2012, Vice President Joe Biden revealed that he was “comfortable” with same-sex marriage, and all eyes turned to Obama. Within days, the president announced his support for gay marriage. White House officials said privately that the president had planned to announce his new position at the Democratic National Convention later that summer.

In recent years, public support for same-sex marriage has risen steadily, putting the Obama administration squarely in the mainstream, particularly in Democratic-leaning states. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows 56 percent of Americans support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, with 38 percent opposing. In the ABC/Post poll, a majority have supported that right consistently since early 2011.

So far, none of the top Republican prospects for the 2016 presidential election have come out in support of gay marriage. And even Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton, who endorsed gay marriage rights last year, has struggled to answer questions about the issue.

In an interview last week on her new book, the former secretary of State grew testy under questioning by Terry Gross, host of the NPR show “Fresh Air.” Ms. Gross asked Clinton repeatedly whether it was her opinion on gay marriage that had changed or the political circumstances that would allow her to express her opinion openly. Clinton accused Gross of “playing” with her words.

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