By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com June 14 2009 12:00 AM ET
John Berry, the highest ranking LGBT official in the Obama administration, announced at Washington D.C.'s Capital Pride Festival Sunday that the Obama administration hopes to secure passage of Hate Crimes this coming week and that President Obama is soon to announce an initiative pertaining to providing federal LGBT employees with benefits equivalent to those provided to their heterosexual counterparts. He also said the administration fully intends to pass an employment nondiscrimination bill, repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and overturn the Defense of Marriage Act "before the sun sets on this administration."
Before Berry, who is director of the Office of Personnel Management overseeing 1.9 million federal workers, made the announcement, he spoke to The Advocate exclusively, saying that he wanted to "download" a few thoughts about the administration's intentions vis-à-vis LGBT issues.
The backstage exchange took place in a brief window before Berry took the stage at Capital Pride and seemed to be prompted by growing discontent in the community following the Justice Department's decision to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. Berry also denied reports that any sort of "deal" had been cut by White House officials regarding LGBT legislation and when it would be accomplished.
Below are Berry's comments to The Advocate , along with his responses to a couple follow up questions.
Berry: In the blog world, there's been a lot of angst and allegations and charges flying, so the good news is, I've been authorized [by the administration] today to say everything that I'm going to be saying.
One of the first things I want to be clear about is that there are a lot of charges that there's been some secret deal or backroom deal, there isn't one. There isn't one, there is no secret deal. We are working in partnership with all LGBT groups, and all groups are doing what they should be doing, which is passionately representing their unique interests.
The administration's position is very simple and straightforward and what I'll be announcing today is both the short-term and long-term focus of this administration.
People are wondering what it is. It's very clear and this is directly from the White House:
Our first hope is that we will get our federal house in order and ensure that no discrimination exists in the federal work place against any of the LGBT community. [Note: This presumably pertains to the fact that transgender workers are still not protected by the federal government's nondiscrimination policy, though gay employees are covered.]
Second, we want to make sure that we get the benefits for the LGBT community that are equal to all other benefits provided to other federal employees, and where we have the authority to move forward, the president is going to be announcing something in the very near future that is going to be a very significant announcement in that regard. Where it requires legislation, we will seek and support it.
We have four broad legislative goals that we want to accomplish and legislation is one of these things where you've got to move when the opportunity strikes, so I'm going to list them in an order but it's not necessarily going to go one, two, three, four. Obviously, I think the first opportunity is hate crimes and we're hopeful that we can get that passed this week. We're going to try, but if not, we're going to keep at it until we get it passed. The second one ENDA, we want to secure that passage of ENDA, and third is we want to repeal legislatively "don't ask don't tell," and fourth, we want to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
Now, I'm not going to pledge -- and nor is the president -- that this is going to be done by some certain date. The pledge and the promise is that, this will be done before the sun sets on this administration - our goal is to have this entire agenda accomplished and enacted into law so that it is secure.
The Advocate: Does that include a second term? A lot of people have talked about DOMA being pushed back until a second term.
Berry: I say this in a broad sense -- our goal is to get this done on this administration's watch.
Finally, I want to talk to you about the DOMA brief. Our strongest argument against "don't ask, don't tell" is that we stand with the truth. And that we, more than anyone, know the cost of lying and the terrible pain it invokes.
This president took a solemn oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and he does not get to decide and choose which laws he enforces. He has to enforce the laws that have been enacted appropriately and that he has inherited. It would be wrong for me or any of our community to advise him to lie or to shirk his responsibility. He's doing his job. He has made clear that he stands for the repeal of DOMA. It will be part of this administration's agenda to accomplish that act. We ought not waste energy and angst attacking him when we should be focusing the energy and effort on getting 218 votes in the house and 60 votes in the Senate, and that's where we ought to target the energy and the strength of this community and this president is with us, this is our agenda and it's his agenda.
I certainly believe that and I've discussed this now with senior advisors in the White House -- it is clear that there's unanimity on this. And this charge that somehow there's some secret deal going on or something behind the scenes -- there is nothing. This is as simple and straightforward as I can be and this administration can be, and we will work with anybody to advance this agenda.
The Advocate: One of the things that people are concerned about is that it's been rumored that at the White House round table meeting with LGBT leaders, administration officials indicated that DOMA would wait until a second term.
Berry: I was at that meeting with Jim Messina and Brian Bond and all the groups. Nobody said that -- I did not hear DOMA in the second term. It's clear that we want to accomplish these things on this administration's watch. We hope we get eight years, but if we're limited to four, we're still going to try to pursue this agenda. I was there for the entire meeting, start to finish. Nobody said second term, nobody is crazy enough to presume that we get a second term - the American people decide whether we get a second term.
The Advocate: And what about "don't ask, don't tell," is that being pushed back?
Berry: We don't have the votes to do Hate Crimes right now, we don't have the votes to do ENDA, how are we going [to get "don't ask, don't tell]?
The Advocate: Understood that "don't ask, don't tell" is a heavier lift, but there's still no Senate repeal bill with which to start lobbying on and building support.
Berry: We're going to have to - there's a lot of good support there - [Senators] Lieberman and Collins - a lot of people, I think, are going to be willing to help. I believe that that energy is going to come together. This administration has got some really smart people, and we're going to work together to do this right and do it in a way that's going to last.