From international patent law to digital copyright, Bruce Lehman’s résumé reads as one of the most muscular brag sheets in the intellectual property universe. The mild-mannered bureaucrat’s legal work for Congress in the 1970s established the framework for modern advancement in the worlds of alternative energy and Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.
But history may well recognize Lehman more as an LGBTQ civil rights icon, as the first out gay man ever confirmed by the Senate for a presidential appointment.
A leader in Democratic politics and D.C.’s LGBTQ community throughout his adult life, Lehman became an early supporter of Bill Clinton’s presidential ambitions — back when the Arkansas governor still seemed a long shot.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for being the first to make gay rights part of the campaign,” Lehman argues. After Clinton’s inauguration, the new president promoted numerous gay and lesbian officials into significant positions within his administration.
In 1993, when Clinton appointed San Francisco Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg as an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nominee’s sexuality came under attack. The late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a notorious homophobe, called Achtenberg a “damn lesbian” during an interview with The Washington Times and labeled her a “militant activist” to The Washington Post for having the temerity to introduce her female partner to senators.
In contrast, Lehman’s appointment as assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce proved to be a non-event, despite the fact that no out gay man had ever won Senate confirmation before.
“I expected discrimination, but there was none whatsoever,” he recalls. Lehman served as commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office until 1997, about halfway through Clinton’s second term, before leaving the office in the care of Q. Todd Dickinson, another out official.
“During the entire eight years of the Clinton administration, we had a gay man running the patent office,” he marvels. He felt that milestone went largely ignored in the queer press as well — even in The Advocate. It still stings Lehman that his Senate confirmation didn’t merit the attention of gossip items on queer-friendly media outlets.
Lehman’s interest in intellectual property dates back to the Nixon administration. At 28, he landed a job on the House Judiciary Committee, and while his more established peers clamored to be part of the Watergate investigations, he wound up providing support for the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property. There he worked on critical legislation such as the Federal Nonnuclear Act of 1974, which still impacts energy research patents today. As a young gay man in Washington, he also learned of the surprisingly influential LGBTQ community in the nation’s capital. Support from the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance helped elect Marion Barry as mayor of the District of Columbia. The city later became one of the first in the country to approve its own LGBT rights ordinance. It’s sad now, Lehman says, to witness a backslide in LGBTQ support in D.C.
“The Clinton administration was our high point,” he now believes. Clinton ultimately appointed more than 150 gay or lesbian individuals to his administration, but at the time many LGBTQ folks were more interested in Clinton’s rollout of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“If a few [hanging] chads hadn’t been misinterpreted, I think [Al] Gore would have appointed a gay Cabinet officer,” Lehman says. “It’s extremely disheartening [Barack] Obama never did that.” While Obama’s appointment of Eric Fanning as secretary of the Army deserves recognition, he served under the secretary of Defense.
Of course, it’s the Donald Trump presidency that has proven more devastating than Lehman dared fear.
“He’s totally embraced the religious right,” Lehman says. “He’s become their god, and they’ve abandoned all principles of Christianity to support this guy. And the only reason they do that is his position on social issues — abortion and gay rights and transgender rights.”
Today, Lehman serves as chairman and president of the International Intellectual Property Institute, which he founded in 1998 shortly after leaving the public sector. Through the organization, he’s remained a major voice in international law regarding digital piracy and software copyright.
“The idea of having ownership of intellectual property, those principles are still not well understood or respected in the majority of the world,” he says. In recent years, he’s tried to expand an understanding of how ownership of ideas can help developing nations, and as a result the institute started to become an educational entity as much as a lobbying think tank.
Of course, he’s still involved in politics. A longtime friend of out Sen. Tammy Baldwin, he’s hosted fundraisers in D.C. and worked in Florida, where he has a vacation home, to support Democrats seeking positions in the House and Senate.