Taking Back the Workplace
BY Kerry Eleveld
April 03 2009 12:00 AM ET
Legal firings of gay
federal employees effectively ended in 1978, when President
Jimmy Carter signed the Civil Service Reform Act. Bill Clinton
added two executive orders, one that specifically reversed
Eisenhower's edict and another that explicitly prohibited
discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the
federal civilian workforce.
But the playing field
remains far from equal. Transgender federal employees still
have no legal protections, and lesbian and gay workers cannot
enroll same-sex partners on their health insurance plan, nor
other spousal benefits afforded to heterosexual couples.
John Berry found that
out firsthand in 1996 after his partner of 10 years, Thomas
Leishman, died of AIDS-related complications. Following his
confirmation hearing last week, Berry told the story of how his
supervisor at the Smithsonian, Connie Newman, told him to take
some time off in order to deal with the loss.
"It was one of the
most wrenching things that's happened in my life," he said,
"and luckily I had a manager who recognized that and provided
At the time, Berry was
a trust employee of the Smithsonian, which gave Newman
flexibility in handling his personal situation. "But had I
been a federal employee, the rules would not have allowed for
any bereavement leave in that circumstance," he explained.
"It's an example of distinction and discrimination that
Berry later pointed out
that Newman was a Republican and an appointee of President
George H.W. Bush.
"It's proof that good
management and good ideas aren't the purview of one party --
they come from good people," he said during a phone call just
after he heard the news that he had been confirmed. "I'm
going to try to make federal benefits and the rules and
regulations of the federal system as enlightened as I can,"
added Berry, whose current partner of 12 years, Curtis
Yee, is also ineligible to receive benefits.
The sentiment echoed
something he expressed during his hearing last week: He wants
the U.S. government to be "the best in the world" and to
become "a model" in human resources management.