Taking Back the Workplace

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com April 03 2009 12:00 AM ET

The arc of history bent
toward justice Friday when the Senate voted unanimously to
confirm John Berry, an openly gay man, as director of the
Office of Personnel Management.

OPM, formerly known as
the U.S. Civil Service Commission, is the human resources
department for 1.9 million federal employees, and was once
responsible for scrubbing gays from the government -- a policy
formalized in 1953 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower
issued Executive Order 10450, making "sexual perversion"
cause for termination.

"The federal
government had a civil service gay ban which was quite
ferociously enforced and resulted in the denial -- either by
firings or non-hirings -- of endless numbers of people, during
the 1950s especially," recalled Frank Kameny, who was
dismissed from his job as an astronomer in the Army Map
Service.

In 1957, Kameny was
summoned by federal investigators who said they had
"information" that led them to believe he was a
"homosexual."

"'What information?'
I said. And they said, 'We can't tell you,'" Kameny recounted
over the phone about a month ago. "I said, 'Well, in that
case, I can't give you an answer.'"

So began Frank Kameny's
crusade at the age of 32 to end discrimination against gays and
lesbians working for the federal government. "It became a
personal project of my own to change the civil service
commission," he said. Kameny took his case to the White
House, to the civil service committees of both congressional
chambers, and finally filed his own legal brief in 1961
petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case, but was
ultimately denied.

Eventually, he and
others launched what he termed "picketing season" in
1965.

"We purposely didn't
publicize them because we didn't want to give the bureaucrats
some way to find a reason why we couldn't do it," he
explained. But after the initial protest of about 10 people at
the White House in April of 1965 went off without a hitch, they
took their show to the Pentagon, the State Department, and, of
course, the Civil Service Commission.

They closed out the
year with a final White House action in October. "By the
standards of our day, it was huge!" he recalled, before
delivering the punch line. "We had 65 people," he said,
chuckling at the success of the nascent movement.

At 83, soon to turn 84
in May, Kameny reeled off the chronology, date, and locations
like they happened yesterday. Then he paused and asked again
why I called.

I told him I wondered
how he felt about the possibility that John Berry might be
heading up OPM.

"I remember seeing
his name somewhere," Kameny said of the news, "but I don't
know terribly much about him."

I said I wasn't so much
interested in his estimation of Berry as I was in the fact that
a gay man might be heading the organization.

Silence weighted the
other end of the line as I realized Mr. Kameny hadn't fully
grasped the news.

"Oh, oh my…" he
said as it settled in. "For the first time in this whole
conversation, this is really registering on me. Oh, my…now I am
impressed!" he said with a hint of glee in his voice. "Macy
must be turning over in his grave," he added, referencing
John W. Macy Jr., his archrival who chaired the commission in
the '60s.

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
that space."

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
shouldn't exist."

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.

"Obviously, one of
the pieces of that puzzle is equal and fair treatment for all
federal employees," he said, ticking off a list of
marginalized groups: LGBTs, African-Americans, Latinos, people
with disabilities.

"We need to draw upon
the strength and diversity of our nation and we need to treat
and accord fairly each and every one of them with benefits, and
training, and with promotional opportunities that are second to
none," he said.

Lofty goals at a time
when many inequities in the federal government are being called
into question. Two separate rulings from California's federal
appeals court have found that same-sex partners of government
employees should be provided health insurance. So far, OPM has
told insurers that offering the benefits would be a violation
of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law prohibiting federal
recognition of same-sex marriages.

But Berry's unanimous
confirmation is a sign of the respect he commands on Capitol
Hill. Having managed multimillion-dollar budgets and hundreds
of employees as director of the National Zoological Park and,
prior to that, executive director of the National Fish and
Wildlife Foundation, Berry's credentials are solid.

He also served as
assistant secretary of the Interior Department under President
Bill Clinton and spent a decade as the legislative director for
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who has been a key player on
the Hill for years on federal employment issues.

The fact that
Republicans and Democrats found consensus on Berry during the
same week that not a single Republican voted for President
Obama's budget also betrays how well-liked Berry is by his
peers, regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on.

"He's one of the
nicest people you'll ever meet in your life without being a
pushover," said Len Hirsch of GLOBE, an organization that
advocates for federal LGBT employees.

Hirsch noted that Berry
will have plenty of obstacles on his hands, not the least of
which is updating, streamlining, and synching government
operations, which are notoriously inconsistent and outdated.
"The government on a whole host of issues, including LGBT,
has not been competitive with the private sector," Hirsch
said, adding that the challenges were "daunting." The
government will also be losing a huge brain trust in the coming
years as baby boomers retire in enormous numbers.

But Berry seems
unfazed. "Optimism is the nectar of progress," he said at
one point in his hearing last week, demonstrating the same type
of unflagging determination that Kameny employed in his
battle.

And if anyone is up to
the task, Beth Moten believes it's Berry. "The long and the
short of it is, President Obama could not have made a better
pick than John Berry for director of OPM," said Moten, the
legislative and political director for the American Federation
of Government Employees, a union representing 600,000 federal
workers.

The only thing Moten --
who has known and worked with Berry for years -- couldn't
decide was whether his intellect and command of policy or his
overall affability and people skills were greater attributes
for the job.

"It's hard to say
which is more important," she said. "The ability to walk
into a room and know within a half hour where everybody's
pressure point is and what they need in order to make a deal --
that is a gift from God. If you've got that and you're smart
enough to understand the substance, there's no stopping you.
This town is built for someone like that."