Hope and an Executive Order

Despite puzzling inaction, advocates hold out optimism for Obama banning discrimination among federal contractors

By Justin Snow
Published on December 20, 2012, 7:03am | Comments

Sen. Barack Obama was well on his way to winning the Democratic nomination for president in late February 2008. It was more than a month after he had won the New Hampshire primary, delivering a rousing victory speech that solidified ''Yes We Can'' as the slogan of his campaign for president. Although his race against Sen. Hillary Clinton would last into June, his early victories had shaken the Democratic establishment.

It was around that time, on Feb. 25, 2008, that Obama filled out a presidential-candidate questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Answering a number of questions about his positions on LGBT equality, in question No. 6 Obama was asked if he would support a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity for federal contractors. Obama responded ''Yes.''

President Barack Obama meets with senior advisors

President Barack Obama meets with senior advisors

(Photo by Pete Souza, Whitehouse.gov)

The question referred to the possibility of, as president, signing an executive order long supported by LGBT advocates that would expand workplace protections and prohibit federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

First signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Executive Order 11246 has been expanded by a number of presidents to prohibit federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Obama's response to question No. 6 indicated he would take the next step and expand those protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

And yet, as Obama's first term as president comes to a close and more than a month after he was re-elected by a solid majority, movement remains stalled on such an order, with millions of LGBT workers still vulnerable to employment discrimination.

During a Dec. 5 press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney provided no new updates on the president's views of the executive order.

''Our position on that hasn't changed,'' said Carney. ''The president supports an inclusive ENDA that would provide lasting and comprehensive protections for LGBT people across the country regardless of whether they happen to work for a government contractor. We look forward to continuing to support that process and that legislation.''

Carney added that the repeal of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'' which secured some Republican support, was a model for how to approach such legislation and indicated the White House continues to take a broader approach to addressing workplace discrimination through federal legislation.

''This president is committed to civil rights and to building on the protections that are necessary for LGBT people as he is for all Americans,'' Carney said.

The executive order would apply to contractors who do more than $10,000 of work with the federal government and affect 26 million workers. What's more, its signage could jumpstart action on one of the final battles of the LGBT-rights movement — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

ENDA enjoys widespread Democratic support, including the support of President Obama, and would be all encompassing, banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity across the nation in public and private workplaces with more than 15 employees. Despite enjoying widespread public support in many polls, ENDA remains stalled in Congress having faced decades of Republican opposition. Indeed, a version of ENDA has been introduced in nearly every session of Congress since 1974.

Many advocates argue that by signing the executive order for federal contractors, Obama could, with the flick of his pen, refocus attention on ENDA.

''The order will give the U.S. Labor Department strong enforcement powers at 22 percent of all jobs in America to seek back wages and reinstatement for LGBT workers who are fired for discriminatory reasons,'' said Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida. ''The order will also trigger national news stories pointing out congressional inaction on this issue, and that will help our movement with one of our biggest ENDA hurdles – the fact that 90 percent of Americans mistakenly believe ENDA has already become law.''