Berry Delivers Stirring Pride Speech

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com June 10 2009 11:00 PM ET

John Berry, the openly gay director of the Office of Personnel Management, delivered a deeply moving and personal speech to a mixed crowd of about 200 Department of Justice employees at their annual Pride Awards on Wednesday.

Berry paid tribute to the "patrons of the Stonewall bar" and Frank Kameny, the gay rights icon who fought to eradicate discriminatory practices in the federal workforce, before citing his own experiences as a gay man to simultaneously touch and challenge the hearts of those sitting before him.

The goal of the LGBT movement is simple, he said. "All Americans should be free to work where their skills enable them, free to share equally in every right as well as every responsibility and burden of citizenship, and free to love and pursue happiness no more and no less than our fellow Americans."

Berry, well aware his LGBT peers often feel ostracized and belittled by their fellow citizens, drew strength in recalling the struggles once faced by some of the nation's most hallowed citizens.

"Who can forget the courage of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, when many of their neighbors and countrymen saw their pursuit of liberty as treason and would have cheered their hanging?" he offered. "Whether it was securing a woman's right to vote or ending 'separate but equal' -- make no mistake -- Susan B. Anthony and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were not unanimously acclaimed and embraced by all their country."

"Today, our country is once again divided -- and pray as I do for a middle ground, finding it is often elusive when liberty is at stake," he declared.

The tree of liberty grows by adding new rings, Berry said, and "we must not rest until our ring is secure. We shall be clear in our ends; we shall be honest and open; we shall work where our abilities allow; we shall continue to serve our country with bravery and distinction; we shall love who our hearts desire."

Berry capped his speech with two remarkably open and personal appeals to the audience.

Coming from a long line of men who served in the military, he told of his father's puzzlement at the nation's present treatment of gays who serve. "We didn't call 'em gays -- but they were there and they died as bravely as everyone else," Berry's father said to him in the year before he died.

Berry then recalled one of his good friends who was gay and had served in the Middle East. "His sacrifice and risk of life was no less dear than anyone. I ask America, where do you stand -- with his honorable service or with those who would make him lie to do so?"

In the final moments of his address, Berry revisited losing his partner of 10 years to AIDS after it reduced his athletic 190-pound body to just 90 pounds.

"I was his primary caregiver -- and I held him in my arms as he died. I would have gladly traded my life for his that night, just as I would do so now for my current partner of 12 years if ever need be. Were we married? No, but I dare anyone to say we were not in love. I was blessed by two supportive families and dear friends who honored our relationship. If I hadn't been -- I shudder to think -- because no power on earth could have kept me from his side.

"Again, I ask: Where do you stand? Honoring love as precious and true wherever you find it, or with those who would demean or deny it?

"I urge you. Stand where you can be proud. Stand with service and truth. Stand with love. Stand for liberty and justice for all," he concluded.

Those who witnessed the address said it profoundly impacted the audience, partly due to Berry's candor but also because of his standing within the administration as the human resources manager of about 1.9 million federal employees.

"His position allows him to understand the complexities of government work, the challenges facing LGBT employees, and the distance we have yet to travel in order to reach full equality," said Chris Hook, a budget analyst who is president of Department of Justice Pride. "His presence and his words serve as an inspiration and reminder to all LGBT employees in federal service that he too shares our goals and our frustrations while providing hope that this administration will take the necessary steps to ensure equality for all."

Vic Basile, a longtime LGBT activist who now serves as special counselor to the director at OPM, said Berry definitely had his audience in mind when he wrote this speech. The Department of Justice is currently mulling a number of LGBT issues, including legal challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell," but it is also reviewing personnel policies that might be made more LGBT-friendly without congressional oversight.

"He knows he has the ear of a lot of people who are decision makers," Basile said. "He knew he had an opportunity to reach people at very high levels and on very human terms, and he did so in ways that I think anybody can understand."

Full text of John Berry's speech as prepared for delivery below:

Thank you. It's good to be here at the Department of Justice. I deeply appreciate the work you do and thank you for your service to our country. Thank you, Mr. Attorney General, for your leadership in continuing this wonderful tradition of celebrating Gay Pride. And thank you, Chris Hook, for the kind introduction. It's an honor to be with you all today.

I'm so glad that you're honoring Dr. Frank Kameny today. In 1957, two years before I was born, Dr. Kameny, a veteran and Ph.D. astronomer from Harvard, was fired from his civil service job solely for his sexual orientation. In one letter to him, an agency official wrote that the Government "does not hire homosexuals and will not permit their employment..." He went on to say that "the homosexual is automatically a security risk" and that he "frequently becomes a disruptive personnel factor within any organization."

With the fervent passion of a true patriot, Frank did not resign himself to his fate or quietly endure his wrong. He fought back. After 20 years, he achieved the goal he sought: The repudiation of the Government's policy of formal and unfounded discrimination.

That same spirit burned in the hearts of patrons of the Stonewall bar on a warm July night 40 years ago. Laws against homosexuality were often selectively enforced by police -- not to protect and defend, but to terrorize and abuse an unpopular minority. On one such raid to arrest gay and transgender patrons of the Stonewall bar, that same spark of liberty that burned so brightly in Frank Kameny's chest burst to bonfire life in New York City.

Saying "no" to abuse, "no" to harassment, "no" to basic violations of human dignity -- proud Americans stood up, fought back, and gave birth to the national movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

That movement's agenda and goal is simple: All Americans should be free to work where their skills enable them; free to share equally in every right as well as every responsibility and burden of citizenship; and free to love and pursue happiness no more and no less than our fellow Americans.

This struggle follows the great American tradition of taking on difficult battles with the same full depth of commitment and passion of those who fought for liberty and against the injustices of their day. Who can forget the courage of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, when many of their neighbors and countrymen saw their pursuit of liberty as treason and would have cheered their hanging?

We need no public poll to tell us how half the country, desperately defending the shackles of slavery, used Scripture, courts, secession, and war to declare African-Americans as chattel and 3/5ths of a person.

Whether it was securing a woman's right to vote or ending "separate but equal" -- make no mistake -- Susan B. Anthony and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were not unanimously acclaimed and embraced by all their country. Thankfully, they were embraced by enough hearts, with enough passion, that together they could stand their ground with courage and hope, carrying the day for right, for justice, and for liberty.

Today, our country is once again divided -- and pray as I do for a middle ground, finding it is often elusive when liberty is at stake.

The tree of liberty grows but in one direction -- by adding rings. It is that miraculous quality that has produced the proud sheltering and living tree whose branches have withstood the lightning strike of secession and the gale force winds of fascism and communism.

The rings of that tree are nourished by honesty and truth, warmed by love and justice, and rooted in respect and dignity. It is my belief that Frank Kameny's fight to hold a job he did well and the passionate fight for dignity and respect that began at Stonewall were not isolated events. They were in fact the formation of a new ring of life on the American tree of liberty.

How privileged are we, in this generation, to stand upon their shoulders and carry forth their fight? We must not rest until our ring is secure. We shall be clear in our ends; we shall be honest and open; we shall work where our abilities allow; we shall continue to serve our country with bravery and distinction; we shall love who our hearts desire. And with the help of a President who supports our cause, the aid of courageous fellow country men and women who love liberty; and with God's grace -- We Shall Prevail.

I would like to end on a personal note. I come from a family with a proud tradition of service. My father enlisted in the Marines before Pearl Harbor and served at Guadalcanal, and my uncle, for whom I am named, was killed in battle in the Pacific.

In the year before he died, my father told me that he didn't know what all the fuss about gays in the Military was about. He said "we didn't call 'em gays -- but they were there and they died as bravely as everyone else." I know he was right. A good friend of mine was a Colonel who honorably served in the Middle East. His sacrifice and risk of life was no less dear than anyone. I ask America, where do you stand -- with his honorable service or with those who would make him lie to do so?

My family has never known divorce. My first partner of 10 years died after a protracted and grueling battle with AIDS that reduced a 6-foot-2 190-pound athlete to 90 pounds at death. I was his primary caregiver -- and I held him in my arms as he died. I would have gladly traded my life for his that night, just as I would do so now for my current partner of 12 years if ever need be. Were we married? No, but I dare anyone to say we were not in love. I was blessed by two supportive families and dear friends who honored our relationship. If I hadn't been -- I shudder to think -- because no power on earth could have kept me from his side.

Again, I ask: Where do you stand? Honoring love as precious and true wherever you find it, or with those who would demean or deny it?

I urge you. Stand where you can be proud. Stand with service and truth. Stand with love. Stand for liberty and justice for all.

God Bless you and God Bless America.