U.S. President Barack Obama is extending some benefits to the same-sex partners of federal government employees - a small, but highly symbolic step amidst a national debate about gay marriage.
Gay rights advocates have been pushing President Obama to rally to their cause.
Now, he is taking the first steps in response.
On Wednesday, he signed a memorandum extending some benefits to the same-sex partners of U.S. government employees.
"It is a day that marks an historic step for the changes we seek," said President Obama. "But I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step."
The president said much more remains to be done, noting he is unable at present to give the partners of gay employees the most important benefits of all, including full health insurance coverage.
Mr. Obama is barred from doing so because of a law enacted in 1996; the Defense of Marriage Act.
Supporters of the act say that even the limited benefits endorsed by the president go too far.
Peter Sprigg is with the Family Research Council in Washington
"We oppose this decision by President Obama to offer benefits to same sex partners of federal employees," said Peter Sprigg. "We feel that it violates at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act."
President Obama said the limited benefits he is offering now are not specifically mentioned in the act. And he said he would like to see the law repealed.
"I believe it is discriminatory," said Mr. Obama. "I believe it interferes with state's rights. And we will work with congress to overturn it."
The president has long called for the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act. Although he is not a supporter of gay marriage, Mr. Obama has said he favors civil unions for homosexual couples with comparable rights and benefits.
His focus on equal rights has encouraged many leaders of the gay rights movement.
Brad Luna is a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign - the largest gay rights organization in the United States.
"President Obama's signature today is the first brick in paving what is a long path towards equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans," said Brad Luna.
In addition to the Defense of Marriage Act, President Obama is also seeking to undo policies related to gays in the U.S. military. Currently, they are allowed to serve if they do not volunteer information about their sexual orientation and refrain from homosexual behavior.