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Obama offers expanded benefits to gay partners of federal employees

The increased coverage is announced during an Oval Office ceremony, but the offerings -- limited by the Defense of Marriage Act -- did not meet the expectations of many activists.

June 18, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak

SAN FRANCISCO — President Obama offered a modest expansion Wednesday of benefits for the same-sex partners of federal employees, but failed to quell the anger of many who called the gesture inadequate.

Speaking at a ceremony in the Oval Office, Obama said the move "paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation's pursuit of equality."

Under the changes, domestic partners can be covered by the government's long-term insurance program for illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease. The move also allows employees to use sick leave to care for an ill partner or non-biological child, and lets the same-sex partners of diplomats use medical facilities at foreign postings.

However, the president's order fell short of offering survivor benefits or comprehensive healthcare, drawing sharp criticism from within the gay community. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bans the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, prevents more generous benefits for same-sex partners.

"This is not enough," said Kate Kuykendall, a federal worker in Los Angeles. "I want to be able to add my wife to my policy in the same way that every other federal employee can add their spouse to their policy."

Obama strongly supported gay rights during his presidential campaign. But he has outraged gay activists since then by failing to fight for two of their priorities: repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, and ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which forbids gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

The president seemed to address those frustrations Wednesday, saying his action "is only one step." He endorsed legislation that would extend the full range of benefits to domestic partners of federal workers and reiterated his opposition to the federal marriage law, calling it discriminatory and vowing to "work with Congress to overturn it."

Some disappointed by the substance of Obama's act were at least heartened by the symbolism of the Oval Office ceremony. "For the first time, we've seen a president recognizing and acknowledging in an affirmative way same-sex couples," said Eric Bauman, a gay activist and vice chairman of the California Democratic Party. "That sends a message all across America."

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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