Great Expectations

Gay power in the age of Obama: Will this president -- and his appointees -- make equal rights part of this nation's recovery?



Washingtonians at the core of the conversation about advancing gay civil rights share Solmonese's sense of amazement. Gay people have always been involved, in limited ways, in the capital's power games. Although "sexual perverts" were barred from federal employment by a 1953 executive order signed by Dwight Eisenhower, an astronomer named Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job at the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957, sued the government; and almost 20 years later, the Civil Service Commission (now called the Office of Personnel Management) finally dropped its ban. Since then, with increasing openness, gay people have helped steer the bureaucracy and support the legislative branch.

Today, "probably a quarter or a third of congressional staff are gay," estimates freshman congressman Jared Polis. "It's almost unusual for a male staffer to be heterosexual here," he adds, only half joking. Polis, a Colorado high-tech tycoon, is one of three openly gay Congress members; the others are Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Bill Clinton was the first president to hire openly gay White House staff, and because of those appointments' pioneering nature, the process was somewhat fraught with the brittle, self-assertive air of identity politics. Most of President Obama's gay staff appointments, by contrast, appear incidental. Nancy Sutley, for instance, a lesbian who was the first gay hire announced by the Obama administration, coordinates federal environmental policy as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Fred Hochberg, dean of Milano the New School for Management and Urban Policy in New York, will lead the Export-Import Bank. Dave Noble, who directed gay outreach during the presidential campaign, is now the White House liaison to the not-so-gay National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Todd Metcalf, floor director for House majority whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, says, "None of these people have been appointed as a token or as a gesture to the community -- See, we're reaching out to you. They appointed these people because they're extraordinarily competent." The Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute and other groups provided Obama's transition team with lists of suggested gay appointees, but Metcalf doesn't believe the transition team made sexual orientation its primary consideration when looking at candiates. "Do you want to be the gay general counsel at the FCC? Or do you want to be the general counsel at the FCC who happens to be gay?" he asks.

A few were tapped for jobs with more obvious relevance to gay issues: As Public Liaison office deputy director, Bond will help guide civil rights policy; at press time the administration had not made public its decision on whether to appoint a liaison in that office who will specialize in gay issues.

The most senior gay appointment so far, and the one that may have the least controversial, most straightforward salutary effect where gay people are concerned, is John Berry, the highly respected former assistant secretary of the Interior and director of the National Zoo, who's been nominated to direct the Office of Personnel Management. If confirmed, he will be the chief human resources executive for the entire federal workforce -- more than 1.8 million civilian employees. Though Berry has no public mandate or mission to bring equality to federal worker benefits, his very presence in that office would likely help hasten passage of a bill in Congress that would extend health care and other benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, which could in turn influence more of the private sector to follow suit.

Tammy Baldwin explains that Berry's appointment, if confirmed, "will provide both symbolic and substantive significance, giving face to the inequities we face in personnel policy in the federal government." Last fall, at a Senate hearing on the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, an OPM official warned that the bill's passage could lead to fraud -- and, incredibly, cited the movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (a farce in which two straight firefighters get married so they can receive domestic-partner benefits) as evidence for his argument. "To have leadership in that organization who gets it, versus the position they were taking just a few months ago, is a sea change," Baldwin says.

Given that exclusion of gay people from the federal workforce was one of the first barriers to equality torn down by one of the gay rights movement's founding fathers, Berry's nomination has a fairly thunderous historical resonance. When I ask the 83-year-old Frank Kameny, who has the manners of a nobleman and the energy of a jumping bean, what he thinks of Berry's nomination, he says, "To now have a gay person in charge of the entire agency just goes beyond anything we could have conceived of back then.

"This ties up a loose end of my life," he adds, with forthright awe, "in the nicest possible way."

Tags: Politics