- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2015

With actions as sweeping as new workplace rules for gays and as symbolic as a gender-neutral bathroom in the White House, President Obama is stepping up his efforts in the sexual-orientation culture wars and trying to burnish his legacy as a champion of gay rights.

Activists in both parties say Mr. Obama’s renewed push for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality could have implications for the 2016 election, because his actions will be difficult for the next president to reverse, and because he is solidifying the Democratic Party’s already-strong ties to a part of its base that votes enthusiastically and raises campaign money prodigiously.

“Clearly, the president and his team are banking on milking the waning hours of the culture war,” said Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist in Michigan who is gay. “It’s working for them now, and they’re trying to maximize that effect. I do see him accelerating his efforts.”

Since his first days in office, Mr. Obama has presented himself as a friend of the LGBT community, appointing more gays to judgeships, ambassadorial posts and other top government jobs while ending the military’s ban on open homosexuals.

But Mr. Obama, who didn’t endorse same-sex marriage until 2012, has picked up the pace of LGBT-friendly actions in recent months, from fully implementing his executive order banning LGBT discrimination by federal contractors to appointing the first U.S. special envoy devoted to LGBT issues to urging states last week to ban “conversion therapy” that teaches young gays how to become straight.

And Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said that he is open-minded about lifting the Pentagon’s ban on transgendered people from serving in the armed forces, a possible move that has encountered strong pushback from senior military brass.

“I feel that this administration has been moving steadily forward on LGBT equality, and I’m excited about the things that have happened recently,” said David Mariner, executive director of the nonprofit DC Center for the LGBT Community. “Everything that’s happened has moved us forward, and I would hope that whatever happens in the next election cycle, we’ve made enough steps forward that we’re not going back.”

The White House also announced last week that it had opened a gender-neutral bathroom in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and said anyone can use whatever bathroom they feel best fits their gender identity. The Eisenhower building is located near the West Wing of the White House and is used by White House staff.

Senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said that Mr. Obama “is determined to lead by example.”

“He has hired more openly LGBT Americans to serve in his administration than any other in history,” she said last week in an online posting. “And we have closely examined our internal policies on everything from benefits, to restroom access, to how we invite people to events, to ensure that everyone who enters this building feels safe and fully respected.”

John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington, said Mr. Obama’s actions achieve twin objectives from the president’s perspective.

“Obama knows that this issue divides Republicans more than it divides Democrats, and he wants to make gay rights a part of his legacy,” Mr. Feehery said.

Public polling in the past year has found Republican voters split on same-sex marriage, with younger Republicans more likely to say their party isn’t willing to go far enough to support it.

In addition to the policy disagreements, many Republicans are watching the president’s moves with trepidation over the potential political impact: The GOP already is viewed unfavorably by many LGBT voters and their allies.

As the presidential campaign heats up, there is a movement afoot by some young conservatives to get the Republican Party to remove language opposing gay marriage from its 2016 platform.

Mr. McNeilly, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who, with his partner, became one of the state’s first gay couples to marry legally last year, said the GOP is allowing Democrats to set the tone for the debate.

“This is a tough transition for the Republican Party,” he said. “It starts with them beginning to understand the real political damage that’s being done to their brand. To win elections, you win by addition, not subtraction. It’s not just the 10 percent of the voting population that may be LGBT personally, but it’s the additional 30 percent who are their friends and allies and their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. The way you talk about [LGBT issues] is just instrumental. They [Republican candidates] have to take a stand against intolerance, even if the policy position isn’t something they can give on.”

Mr. Obama courted gay campaign donors aggressively in 2012, a lesson that the next Democratic presidential nominee is likely to embrace. It’s estimated that about 1 in 6 of Mr. Obama’s big-money “bundlers” in 2012 — people who raised $500,000 or more for the reelection effort — was openly gay.

Among the other steps that the administration has taken in recent months on behalf of LGBT equality:

The Justice Department filed a brief April 3 in litigation in Georgia that said prison officials have the obligation to assess and treat “gender dysphoria” — people who become distressed about a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity — just as they would any other medical or health condition.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 31 announced $185 million for grant opportunities for HIV prevention among transgendered people and gay and bisexual men, with a particular focus on people of color.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development issued new guidance in February designed “to better serve LGBT Americans seeking to obtain a home loan and to ensure appropriate placement of transgender individuals in homeless shelters.”

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in December the government’s position that protections against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extend to claims of discrimination based on gender identity, including transgender status.

Said Mr. McNeilly of the president: “He is positioning himself as well as the Democratic Party to be on the leading edge of change.”

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