Over the course of his six-year tenure, Attorney General Eric Holder shaped the Department of Justice into an engine of progress for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. Now President Obama has the opportunity to carry that work forward by appointing a highly qualified, openly LGBT American to succeed him — guaranteeing a historic first for the cabinet.
This isn’t about symbolism. Naming one of many skilled and accomplished LGBT candidates to our nation’s highest law enforcement position would put to bed a legacy of discrimination and exclusion that dates back more than six decades.
It’s easy to forget how far this nation has come in a short time, but we can’t ever forget where we started. Hanging on the wall at our Washington, D.C., headquarters is a big, blown-up copy of a letter on Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation letterhead — dated July 1, 1998. The letter was sent as a response to the victim of a vicious hate crime, a man beaten by assailants who believed him to be gay.
“Your case was thoroughly discussed with the United States Attorney’s Office in Boise, Idaho, in an effort to explore prosecutive possibilities under existing federal hate crimes laws,” the response letter reads. “It was determined that sexual orientation does not fall within the listed elements of hate crimes. Therefore, the Federal Bureau of Investigation lacks the statutory authority to investigate the attacks against you.”
In many ways, those days were a dramatic improvement from what came before. In the 1950s, the Department of Justice was just one of many cabinet agencies that faced pressure to root out any fire any known gay or lesbian “sexual deviants” within their ranks. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover personally led outing campaigns targeting civil servants within the federal government. Known as the “Lavender Scare,” this period of fear forced many LGBT public servants deeply into the closet and launched others into the first major generation of LGBT advocacy.
Keeping that history in mind helps you realize just how remarkable Attorney General Eric Holder’s leadership at the Justice Department really was. He presided over the enactment of a comprehensive federal hate-crimes law — a law that guaranteed that no more letters like that one would ever be sent again. He ceased the federal government’s defense of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, and he implemented the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down that law with unprecedented speed. It’s no hyperbole to say that Eric Holder has brought the same urgency and leadership to the fight for LGBT equality that Robert F. Kennedy brought to the fight for civil rights five decades earlier.
In short, his legacy is unmatched, but there is more we can do.
Appointing an openly LGBT cabinet member would cement the Obama administration’s record of leadership on LGBT issues. But it would accomplish far more than that. It would tell an LGBT young person growing up in a small town in Wyoming or Mississippi — facing rejection in school, in church, even in their own home — that there is nothing in this world that they can’t grow up to achieve. It would show this nation that LGBT people have a vital role to play in helping all Americans secure justice. From keeping criminals off the streets to protecting this nation from domestic and international threats to tackling cyber terrorism and guaranteeing cyber security, a visible LGBT attorney general would deepen our national ethic of shared responsibility and collective obligation to the common good. In short, it would show that making America better is the responsibility of LGBT people too.
There is no denying the progress this nation has made toward LGBT equality over these past few years. And there is denying the historic role Attorney General Holder has played in guaranteeing that progress. I can think of no better testament to that legacy of leadership than the historic appointment of the first-ever openly LGBT cabinet member to succeed him.
CHAD GRIFFIN is the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization.