By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com April 23 2009 12:00 AM ET
John Berry was
officially sworn in Thursday as director of the Office of
Personnel Management, making him the highest ranking openly gay
official within the Obama Administration. Berry now heads the
agency that serves as the human resources department for the
federal government's 1.9 million employees.
The First Lady attended
Berry's ceremony along with a crowd of attendees that read like
an LGBT who's who of Washington - including Joe Solmonese of
HRC, Bob Witeck and Wes Combs of Witeck-Combs Communications,
Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress, and a
recent addition at OPM, longtime LGBT activist, Vic
During his remarks to a
crowd of about 500, a glowing Berry made a special point of
recognizing one guest, Dr. Frank Kameny -- the LGBT
rights icon who had been fired from the federal government in
1957 for being gay.
"In no small part,
Dr. Kameny's work, and other leaders like him, made it
possible for me to stand here today," said Berry, who was
accompanied at the event by his family and his partner Curtis
Yee. "For that, Frank, I personally thank you for your
leadership, passion and persistence."
Berry also alluded to
having President Obama's support in applying fair treatment
across the board for all federal employees.
"It is the
president's and my opinion that employees should only be
judged by their ability to do their job and their performance
on the job and no other irrelevant factor," he said.
Presently, federal LGBT employees cannot access the partner
benefits afforded to heterosexual spouses - an inequity that
has been highlighted by several legal battles winding their way
through the court system.
The First Lady
dedicated the bulk of her speech to acknowledging the tender
balance between political appointees of sitting presidents and
federal civil servants who often perform their duties under
successive presidents with varying political persuasions.
"One of my favorite
things as First Lady is traveling around doing these agency
visits. This is my ninth agency visit," she said, "and with
each one of them I am more and more impressed with the
dedication of true public servants -- people who regardless of
who's in the White House come to work every day â€¦ and do
their jobs to the best of their abilities."
Some of them have held
their jobs longer than she has been alive, Mrs. Obama said with
a smile, acknowledging the OPM staffers seated behind her on
stage - all of whom had served 40-plus years at the agency. The
First Lady is 45 and, yes, one OPM worker, Lorraine Elyde, had
served 47 years at the agency. (An aide noted that they make an
effort to seat the longest serving staffers at each agency on
stage with the First Lady whenever she makes a visit.)
"All of you here
at OPM keep the government's most important resource -- and
that is people -- you keep them working. You make it
possible," she said. "We're going to need you.
Barack Obama cannot make the changes that we hope without
employees who are motivated and excited and
Following the ceremony,
the First Lady shook hands with folks in the crowd and greeted
Dr. Frank Kameny.
apparently been briefed," Kameny said. "She thanked me for
my past contributions. I was very surprised, I didn't
expect it," he said, adding that he's "a very great fan"
of the First Lady.
Berry told reporters he
was excited about getting to work because his senior staff at
OPM was "top flight." He singled out gay Clinton vet Elaine
Kaplan, "one of the brightest attorneys in town," and
former HRC executive director Vic Basile, "he's going
to be my utility infielder - my short stop, if you
"I hired my team,
each one of them, because of their skills," he said, "and
it just so happened they turned out to be a diverse group of
When asked what he
might focus on initially for LGBT employees, Berry noted that
there's currently no enforcement mechanism for President
Clinton's executive order protecting gays and lesbians from
discrimination in the federal work force.
"So we're going to be
looking at ways to make sure that, those rules, if they are
violated, people have a process by which they can achieve
justice," Berry said.
Transgender people are
not covered by that executive order and Berry said he would
"be discussing" that with the President and other relevant
entities of the federal government.
"It is certainly my
intention in everything that I will do," he said, "to
provide that protection for people in our transgender
On a broader scale,
Berry is looking to employ veterans returning from Iraq,
Afghanistan and elsewhere.
to come back and they're not trained for jobs,
they're not welcomed back to the work force," he said.
"I want them to know that they're welcome here in the
federal work force â€¦ If we can engineer and develop an
effective training program, I think we can more effectively
employ veterans who are coming back from service abroad."