As President Obama and Mitt Romney articulate competing visions for the future in their presidential campaigns, most LGBT rights advocates agree the choice couldn’t be more stark given the advances the community has seen over the past three-and-a-half years and the anti-gay positions espoused by the Republican candidate.
On one hand, President Obama has endorsed marriage equality, capping off a first term of efforts at the legislative and regulatory levels aimed at benefitting the LGBT community. On the other, Romney signed a pledge with the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage to back a Federal Marriage Amendment and defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. Last month, he backed off his earlier stated belief that adoption by same-sex couples is a right by saying he simply “acknowledges” the legality of such adoptions in many states.
Obama has made “forward” the theme for his 2012 campaign. The extent to which Romney has adopted anti-gay views and aligned himself with anti-gay groups raises a key question for LGBT voters: Under a Romney administration, how far “backward” could the LGBT community go?
Many of the pro-LGBT advances that have happened under the Obama administration occurred through changes made by the executive branch rather than through legislation. Changes that were made without the consent of Congress could be reversed under an administration that wanted to cozy up to the religious right.
The Washington Blade has identified five regulatory changes and 16 sub-regulatory changes enacted by the Obama administration that could be reversed if Romney were elected to the White House. These changes include giving greater recognition to same-sex couples, protecting federal LGBT workers against discrimination and ensuring the federal government recognizes the correct gender of transgender people.
Major changes that were made under the Obama administration at the regulatory level include a memorandum requiring all hospitals receiving Medicaid and Medicare funds to allow visitation rights for same-sex couples; lifting the HIV travel ban; and a Department of Housing & Urban Development rule prohibiting discrimination in federal public housing programs and federally insured mortgage loans.
Jerame Davis, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, predicted Romney would aim to roll back these policies if he takes the oath of office in January 2013.
“If Mitt Romney were to accede to the presidency, he would have no choice but to deliver on the regressive, ultra-conservative agenda he’s been promising the radical GOP machine,” Davis said. “It is without question that rolling back advances in LGBT equality would be at the top of the list.”
Romney has never pledged during the campaign to rescind any pro-LGBT regulatory changes made under the Obama administration. Although he said he doesn’t support same-sex marriage or civil unions with the same benefits as marriage, Romney said he favors some kind of domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples as well as hospital visitation rights. Rescinding this hospital visitation memorandum would appear to break a campaign promise.
Moreover, the Administrative Procedures Act—a law enacted by Congress in 1946 governing the way in which administrative agencies may propose and establish rules—prohibits a quick change in regulation if a hostile administration takes over. Instituting new final regulations repealing these policies would be a multi-year process and require a justification for overturning them other than for political reasons.
Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he doubts that Romney would take away this progress based on the candidate’s tenure as Massachusetts governor and as a business executive.
“As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney sustained executive orders providing for domestic partnership benefits including hospital visitation rights for gay and lesbian state employees,” Berle said. “This action directly builds upon his record in leading companies like Bain Capital and Staples, which had strong nondiscrimination policies and partner benefits. This history both as a chief executive in the business sector and as governor of Massachusetts give precedence for sustaining President Obama’s positions on matters including hospital visitation.”
But Romney did rescind some pro-LGBT changes as governor. According to MassEquality, Romney abolished the Governor’s Commission on GLBT Youth and rescinded an executive order prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in the state workforce. Another Republican, former Gov. William Weld, had instituted those measures.
It’s the sub-regulatory initiatives where the most sweeping changes could be made. The time needed to change these would be shorter than the time needed to change more formal regulations, although it would vary from agency to agency and issue to issue. For many, an agency could rescind guidance issued by the Obama administration, issue a superseding directive or discontinue a certain program.
Among these sub-regulatory changes are revising standards to allow transgender people to change a gender marker on a passport; the Education Department’s guidance clarifying that student bullying may violate sex discrimination protections under federal law; the reinterpretation of the Family & Medical Leave Act to allow employees to care for their same-sex partner’s child; and the Census Bureau’s decision to release data on married same-sex couples along with other demographic information in the 2010 Census.
Davis said all the administrative changes—ranging from the regulatory to sub-regulatory level—would be in jeopardy if Romney wins the election.
“The bigoted wing of the GOP, which Romney has embraced with gusto, cannot stand the idea that same-sex relationships have been afforded near equal status in so many federal rules and regulations,” Davis said. “It grates against their very being that transgender Americans can get passports with the appropriate gender marker and there are more than a few who want to see the HIV travel ban put back into place.”
The Romney campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether these changes would remain in place under a Romney administration. The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee declined to comment for this article.
Are there steps the Obama administration could take now to ensure the changes become more permanent?
Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said the sub-regulatory changes could be, in a sense, upgraded to regulatory changes, but that process would be lengthy and cumbersome.
“Of course, advances made through regulations are more difficult to undo, but it is also more challenging to move new regulations through the process of review, public comment and approval,” Cole-Schwartz said. “Making LGBT inclusion part of the culture of federal government across departments and agencies is a big part of making these changes more difficult to roll back — and the administration has done a great deal to foster that inclusiveness.”
These changes don’t include the anti-gay promises that Romney has made. Romney has campaigned on resuming defense of DOMA, which would be a stark change from the Obama administration’s practice of filing legal briefs against the anti-gay law in court and sending Justice Department attorneys to litigate against the statute. Romney also pledged to set up a presidential commission on religious liberty to investigate the alleged harassment of opponents of same-sex marriage.
Cole-Schwartz said the array of ways in which a Romney administration could reverse the progress made on LGBT rights underscores the significance of the upcoming election.
“It further emphasizes the importance of re-electing a fair-minded president whose administration will continue to seek out ways to further LGBT equality,” Cole-Schwartz said.
Pro-LGBT policy changes under Obama
The Administrative Procedures Act provides safeguards against politically motivated policy switches. Thus repealing the policies below would involve a multi-year process.
- The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) adopted a regulation ending the ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants.
- President Obama issued Presidential Memorandum in April 2010 directing HHS to issue regulations requiring all hospitals receiving Medicaid and Medicare to prohibit discrimination in visitation against LGBT people. HHS issued a final regulation that went into effect in early 2011.
- HUD issued final regulations in January 2012 prohibiting discrimination in federal public housing programs and federally insured mortgage loans. HUD also requires its grantees to comply with LGBT-inclusive state and local housing discrimination protections.
- The Office of Personnel Management published final regulations in the Federal Register expanding the eligibility for long-term care coverage to same-sex partners and sick leave to care for a same-sex partner.
- The federal Prison Rape Elimination Commission proposed national standards to reduce sexual abuse in correctional facilities, including standards regarding LGBT and intersex inmates. They were later instituted as a rule finalized by the Justice Department last month.
Sub-Regulatory Guidance/Policy Announcements
These are policy advances instituted by—and subject to the will of—the administration.
- The Department of Health and Human Services revised its funding guidance around abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs, requiring that recipient programs are inclusive of and non-stigmatizing toward LGBT youth.
- HHS, in partnership with the Department of Education and Department of Justice, launched stopbullyingnow.com.
- The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency recently released new 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards. These new standards provide guidance that aims to improve treatment of LGBT and HIV-positive people in detention facilities.
- In summer 2011, ICE published a memo and clarifying guidance providing that an individual’s family relationships, including a same-sex relationship, would be considered as a factor in labeling certain deportations as low-priority deportations.
- The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol announced a proposed regulatory change expanding the meaning of “members of a family residing in one household” for the purposes of the customs declaration form, which must be completed prior to re-entry to the United States.
- The DOJ issued an opinion clarifying that the criminal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act related to stalking and abuse apply equally to same-sex partners.
- The State Department revised the standards for changing a gender marker on a passport, making the process less burdensome for transgender people.
- In September 2011, the Social Security Administration confirmed that it ended the practice of allowing gender to be matched in its Social Security Number Verification System (SSNVS). This resulted in the immediate cessation of SSA sending notifications that alert employers when the gender marker on an employee’s W-2 does not match Social Security records.
- The State Department extended numerous benefits to the partners of Foreign Service officers, including diplomatic passports and access to emergency evacuation.
- The State Department reversed a Bush administration policy that refused to use a same-sex marriage license as evidence of a name change for passports.
- The Department of Education issued guidance clarifying when student bullying may violate federal law, distributed a memo outlining key components of strong state anti-bullying laws and policies and made clear to public schools that gay-straight alliances have a right to form and meet.
- The Department of Education published guidance and, in coordination with the Department of Justice, has pursued Title IX complaints filed by LGBT students experiencing harassment based on sex or sex stereotyping.
- OPM added gender identity to the equal employment opportunity policy governing all federal jobs.
- The Department of Labor issued guidance clarifying that an employee can take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a same-sex partner’s child.
- The IRS clarified that domestic partners (and their children) can be designated beneficiaries for VEBA funding/payment purposes.
- The Census Bureau overturned the Bush administration’s interpretation of the Defense of Marriage Act and agreed to release data on married same-sex couples along with other demographic information from the 2010 Census.