Obama Puts Out Rainbow-Colored Welcome Mat

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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Obama Puts Out Rainbow-Colored Welcome Mat

by
Deb Price

At a recent White House cocktail party, gay leaders Joe Solmonese and Rea Carey sipped drinks in the Blue Room and guessed which way President Obama would enter.

Suddenly, the president walked in -- right behind Carey. "I said, 'Rea, turn around,'" recalls Solmonese, head of the Human Rights Campaign. "I physically turned her around to see the president."

To their happy astonishment, the president didn't just quickly shake their hands on his way to greet the 30 or so other guests that night.

Instead, he asked when hate crimes legislation will reach his desk so he can sign it. And he listened as they stressed the need for a federal ban on job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- legislation he supports.

"It was such a sharp contrast to the Bush administration -- to have a president that recognizes the issues that our community has been working on for a long time," says Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The Obama White House invited gay leaders to the health care and fiscal responsibility summits, the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the executive order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, and an online town hall. Gay parents were encouraged to bring their kids to the Easter egg roll.

The new access, says Solmonese, provides chances to make sure discussions of desired reforms include gay topics -- like how gay couples are taxed for partner health coverage and not recognized for Social Security survivor benefits.

"I was able to bring to light a number of economic inequalities that (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people face in the absence of marriage equality," Solmonese says. "I can't tell you how important it was to have that conversation."

The White House outreach has included Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality and Rebecca Fox of the National Coalition for LGBT Health.

Gay leaders I spoke with aren't worried that there aren't big policy changes to celebrate just yet. One noteworthy exception: The United States will sign a United Nations declaration calling for decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide.

And Obama is salting gay talent through his administration. Most noteworthy is John Berry, confirmed by the Senate as director of the Office of Personnel Management. That puts a gay man in charge of the 1.9 million federal employees, including overseeing their benefits.

Other appointees include Emily Hewitt, an ordained Episcopal priest, as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. A peek at Hewitt's biography on her official court site shows the comfort Obama's gay choices feel: "Chief Judge Hewitt is married to Eleanor Dean Acheson."

Obama tapped Fred Hochberg to chair the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Harry Knox to serve on the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Nancy Sutley to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Summing up the feelings of so many gay leaders about the Obama era, Solmonese says, "I feel incredibly hopeful on every front."

Deb Price of the Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

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