Vilified by the right wing, granted a hero’s welcome by the LGBT establishment, and mocked and lauded in equal measure by the mainstream media, Amanda Simpson learned how hot the spotlight really is when she was unofficially identified as the first transgender presidential appointee. Trouble is, she’s not the first transgender staffer appointed by the executive branch — and we may never know who really is.
Weeks before that photo of an ebullient Simpson became ubiquitous and news of her appointment to the Department of Commerce as a senior technical adviser spread online, Dylan Orr (pictured) — a 30-year-old transgender man — quietly set up his desk at the Department of Labor after getting the nod from President Obama in late October. Working as the special assistant to assistant secretary Kathy Martinez in the Office of Disability Employment Policy, Orr started work on December 7 with a surprising amount of experience for someone so young — before moving to D.C., he worked at Disability Rights Washington, an advocacy organization in Seattle. Orr also put in time at a civil rights law firm and last year received his juris doctor from the University of Washington School of Law.
So why hasn’t the accomplished Orr been able to assume his place in history?
The National Center for Transgender Equality, of which Simpson was a board member for three years, initially circulated news of her appointment to the media. Mara Keisling, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, says there’s no conspiracy to promote Simpson at the expense of Orr.
“We sent an alert on New Year’s Eve that one of our board members got a federal appointment,” Keisling says. “We never said she was the first [transgender appointee] ... Dylan wasn’t ducking it [either] — we didn’t mention [him] because he’s not on our board.”
Any inaccuracies should be blamed on a 24-hour news cycle desperate to tell a memorable story, according to Keisling. “[The media] almost demanded that Amanda be the first, even when neither Amanda or anyone else told them she was the first.”
Autumn Sandeen, who blogs on transgender issues for PamsHouseBlend.com, says Simpson’s gender helped push her story forward: “If Dylan’s story came out first, people still wouldn’t care because he’s a trans man, and trans men are not looked at as ‘dangerous’ in the way trans women are.”
Gender politics aside, calling someone the “first” anything is inherently thorny. That’s especially true when referring to transgender trailblazers, many of who would prefer to simply be thought of as a man or a woman, rather than a transgender man or woman. Keisling says there were actually two transgender men — Kellan Baker and Ejay Jack — who interned for short stints this summer in the White House. And Sandeen points out that way back in 1996, President Clinton named Lynn Conway, a transgender woman, to the Air Force Academy Board of Visitors.
“There are a lot of trans people who are out, but not out in government, just as there are gay people in Washington who [aren’t out],” Keisling says. “There’s a difference between not wanting people to know, not mentioning it, and hiding it. There are probably people in the government hiding it.”
Of Simpson, Orr, Conway, Baker, and Jack, Keisling says, “I don’t think any of them care if they were first or not — they’re just here to do their jobs.”
Earlier this month Simpson told ABCNews.com, “Being the first sucks,” but quickly added the caveat, “I'd rather not be the first but someone has to be first, or among the first.” Both Simpson and Orr declined to be interviewed for this story.
Even though she can’t claim to be the first transgender presidential appointee, Simpson is undoubtedly the face of progress. The reasons for that aren’t so complicated.
“Amanda definitely has the highest position of all the [transgender appointees],” Sandeen says. “She is eminently qualified for the job. She’s beautiful and successful, and she’s actually a rocket scientist.”