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Great Expectations

Great Expectations


Gay power in the age of Obama: Will this president -- and his appointees -- make equal rights part of this nation's recovery?

"I was just at the White House!" says Joe Solmonese, who hadn't seen the inside of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in more than eight years. The Bush administration extended no invitations to the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay lobbying group. His reunion with the building was understandably a bit emotional.

"You could just wander around the first floor, anywhere you wanted to go," he adds later, and so he idled through the hushed, high-ceilinged rooms until it was time for President Barack Obama to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first major piece of legislation to pass Congress after Obama took office. Solmonese recalls that during the ceremony, "I turned around where I was sitting and I looked into the eyes of so many of the staff people, like David Axelrod and Rahm [Emanuel], and all of those people had tears in their eyes, and it filled me with a renewed sense of hope about changing things for GLBT Americans." Solmonese, who speaks in sleek, rapid-fire sentences, is wary of sentimentality -- "It sounds hokey," he says -- but still he goes on.

After the bill signing, Solmonese says, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile asked him, " 'What are you thinking about?' And I said, 'I'm envisioning this moment for the GLBT community and watching the president sign a bill that will bring this measure of equality to our community.' As if on cue, a number of White House staff people came over and said to me, 'We look forward to working to make sure that this happens in pretty short order for the GLBT community.' "

Michael Strautmanis, who had served as Obama's chief counsel in the Senate (which has traditionally been slower to pass gay rights bills than the House), was one of those well-wishers. Ellen Moran, White House communications director, whom Solmonese calls "one of my closest friends in the world," was another. (They once shared an office at the pro-choice advocacy group EMILY's List, and Moran replaced him as executive director of that organization when Solmonese took his current job at HRC.) Solmonese has a long list of acquaintances in the new administration: "I've known Brian Bond [deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison] for years. Melody Barnes [Obama's domestic policy adviser] and I were on a board togetheraEUR|."

Solmonese sits in his corner office on the top floor of the glass and steel HRC building, which stands, as if metaphorically, opposite the hulking brick Dupont Circle YMCA. Slipping into second person, he says, "It's amazing, the number of people you know" -- not bragging, but with composed astonishment at the new world Washington, D.C., seems to have become, and how quickly the structure of power can change.

The New Kings of the Hill View profiles of President Obama's LGBT appointees Brad Kiley Brian Bond Fred Hochberg John Berry Mike Perriello Michael Camunez Nancy Sutley

Washingtonians at the core of the conversation about advancing gay civil rights share Solmonese's sense of amazement. Gay people have always been involved, in limited ways, in the capital's power games. Although "sexual perverts" were barred from federal employment by a 1953 executive order signed by Dwight Eisenhower, an astronomer named Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job at the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957, sued the government; and almost 20 years later, the Civil Service Commission (now called the Office of Personnel Management) finally dropped its ban. Since then, with increasing openness, gay people have helped steer the bureaucracy and support the legislative branch.

Today, "probably a quarter or a third of congressional staff are gay," estimates freshman congressman Jared Polis. "It's almost unusual for a male staffer to be heterosexual here," he adds, only half joking. Polis, a Colorado high-tech tycoon, is one of three openly gay Congress members; the others are Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Bill Clinton was the first president to hire openly gay White House staff, and because of those appointments' pioneering nature, the process was somewhat fraught with the brittle, self-assertive air of identity politics. Most of President Obama's gay staff appointments, by contrast, appear incidental. Nancy Sutley, for instance, a lesbian who was the first gay hire announced by the Obama administration, coordinates federal environmental policy as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Fred Hochberg, dean of Milano the New School for Management and Urban Policy in New York, will lead the Export-Import Bank. Dave Noble, who directed gay outreach during the presidential campaign, is now the White House liaison to the not-so-gay National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Todd Metcalf, floor director for House majority whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, says, "None of these people have been appointed as a token or as a gesture to the community -- See, we're reaching out to you. They appointed these people because they're extraordinarily competent." The Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute and other groups provided Obama's transition team with lists of suggested gay appointees, but Metcalf doesn't believe the transition team made sexual orientation its primary consideration when looking at candiates. "Do you want to be the gay general counsel at the FCC? Or do you want to be the general counsel at the FCC who happens to be gay?" he asks.

A few were tapped for jobs with more obvious relevance to gay issues: As Public Liaison office deputy director, Bond will help guide civil rights policy; at press time the administration had not made public its decision on whether to appoint a liaison in that office who will specialize in gay issues.

The most senior gay appointment so far, and the one that may have the least controversial, most straightforward salutary effect where gay people are concerned, is John Berry, the highly respected former assistant secretary of the Interior and director of the National Zoo, who's been nominated to direct the Office of Personnel Management. If confirmed, he will be the chief human resources executive for the entire federal workforce -- more than 1.8 million civilian employees. Though Berry has no public mandate or mission to bring equality to federal worker benefits, his very presence in that office would likely help hasten passage of a bill in Congress that would extend health care and other benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, which could in turn influence more of the private sector to follow suit.

Tammy Baldwin explains that Berry's appointment, if confirmed, "will provide both symbolic and substantive significance, giving face to the inequities we face in personnel policy in the federal government." Last fall, at a Senate hearing on the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, an OPM official warned that the bill's passage could lead to fraud -- and, incredibly, cited the movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (a farce in which two straight firefighters get married so they can receive domestic-partner benefits) as evidence for his argument. "To have leadership in that organization who gets it, versus the position they were taking just a few months ago, is a sea change," Baldwin says.

Given that exclusion of gay people from the federal workforce was one of the first barriers to equality torn down by one of the gay rights movement's founding fathers, Berry's nomination has a fairly thunderous historical resonance. When I ask the 83-year-old Frank Kameny, who has the manners of a nobleman and the energy of a jumping bean, what he thinks of Berry's nomination, he says, "To now have a gay person in charge of the entire agency just goes beyond anything we could have conceived of back then.

"This ties up a loose end of my life," he adds, with forthright awe, "in the nicest possible way."

As the social and professional situation of gay people in Washington is changing, there's an equally profound rhetorical and ideological reframing of gay issues afoot. The shift may dictate some revision of how the gay movement perceives its progress. Most lobbyists, staffers, consultants, and activists agree that gay rights issues should not be presented as a push by a special interest but as expressions of a comprehensive view of what constitutes good government and society. The central question about gay issues shifts from What rights should gay people have? to What kind of country do we want to live in? During the Obama administration, gay issues will often be embedded in larger policy debates: Changes in HIV/AIDS policies will be presented as part of comprehensive health care reform; domestic-partner benefits will be presented as part of tax reform; "don't ask, don't tell" will be repealed to enhance troop readiness.

It's hard to overestimate the potential impact of that change on the way gay people view themselves and the way the rest of the country views the questions heretofore known as "gay issues." Rea Carey, executive director of the country's oldest continuously operating gay advocacy group, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, says, "The public discourse and what we've created as a movement is a relatively limited view of what policy issues affect LGBT people. There are, of course, the big four -- hate crimes, [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], "don't ask, don't tell," and overturning [the Defense of Marriage Act] -- and on the state level, nondiscrimination laws. Those are critical to the well-being of our community. But I have been insisting to the media and to policymakers that we need to be involved and not left behind when we are looking at solutions to the economic crisis. LGBT people are losing jobs and in some cases don't have the protections that others have. They are taxed on partner benefits, for instance, if they're lucky enough to have them."

Mark Agrast, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who worked closely with the transition team on gay policy questions, believes this change in approach will be effective. "We want concrete steps toward real inclusion," he says. "There's general agreement that symbolic actions have no particular value. People have matured beyond the need for validation."

Well, maybe not entirely. Many hoped that Obama would name an openly gay cabinet member, but he didn't -- and the depth of the gay movement's need for validation was dramatized when, the day the president named a straight woman to the last remaining cabinet post, the White House also announced that Rick Warren would offer the inaugural invocation. The coincidence led to a conflagration when gay activists publicized Warren's activism on behalf of California's antigay Proposition 8.

One elegant if ingenious reading of the blunder, which I heard from several sources, goes like this: Obama positioned himself to do good things for us by not reflexively bending over backward for us. Choosing Rick Warren and sticking to the choice showed that he's not beholden to special interest groups. Hence: Now, when we debate gay issues, it will look like he's doing things on the merits, not just paying someone off.

This interpretation, though, may overestimate the calculation of the choice. One source close to the president says he believes that Warren wasn't fully vetted, that Obama personally asked the pastor to give the invocation because the two are friendly, and that Obama probably didn't know about Warren's work on behalf of Prop. 8 -- because the campaign was so focused on other issues in the final days.

That seems a stretch, but it is conceivable: Warren's work on AIDS in Africa did give liberals a fuzzy sense that he was more liberal on social issues than he actually is. But Obama, of all people, is a glutton for homework, and views on homosexuality would be among the first things he likely would think to question when considering such a prominent assignment for a conservative preacher.

Even if there's a grain of truth in this account, the Warren episode is another echo of the old saw that the personal is political. Though maddening in some respects, this personal dimension of political life at the highest levels is also beginning to work to gay people's advantage. "A lot of members [of Congress] look around this place and see gay staffers serving them very well," says Todd Metcalf in the whip's office. "And when we're debating ENDA, saying, that person should not be fired because of being gay, they get it. And I think if they didn't see that, I'm not sure that they would."

These gay staffers, to put it bluntly, expect to be treated like people. Their expectations alter the course of political debate among their bosses. And these expectations are, moreover, a proxy for our own.

Gay people's expectations of Obama notched up with his campaign promises to them, then again on Inauguration Day, when a list of policy goals headlined "Support for the LGBT Community" appeared on the White House website. (The list occupies fully half the page devoted to civil rights overall.) As expectations often do, ours burst into impatience, and blogs grew shrill with questions as to why no gay rights issues took the fore in the president's first days in office.

Steve Elmendorf, a leading lobbyist and Hill veteran who worked as chief of staff to Dick Gephardt when Gephardt was House majority leader, says, "There's great expectations for both our movement and for everybody else. The biggest problem for the White House, besides the economy, comes when you get to the next list of issues, is sequencing. Figuring out what the political market in Congress will bear." Robert Raben, another prominent lobbyist and former assistant attorney general, says, "People who are your friends, people who want to do the right thing and improve public policy for gays and lesbians, look you in the eye and say, 'Yes, give me a minute.' And it's hard to know what to do with that. You want to kick them and say, 'What do you mean, Give me a minute? It's been 230 years.'E,f;" And Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post 's editorial board warns, "The community needs to take a cold shower, because this isn't happening overnight. The words on that website are wonderful, but they are going to hit reality real quick. Impatience is this movement's Achilles' heel."

Reality could not be more pressing during the week I visit Washington. I arrive the day the House debates the economic stimulus bill and speed-walk with Polis, on his way to make a floor speech in support of the package, down a hallway of the Cannon House Office Building. He shakes his head when I press the question of how gay rights bills might be sequenced in Congress and says, "Saving the economy is the most important thing for gays and lesbians. There's no gay and lesbian solution to that problem," and then, walking out the door of the building, looks up at the sky and says, with a freshman's confused frustration, "This is the wrong door!"

Many questions about sequence and strategy, he explains, will remain unanswered at least until the middle of March, when the president presents his final budget to Congress. (The budget serves as a statement of priorities, because line items imply policy shifts, which shape legislative priorities.) Back inside the building, finally we find the door Polis is looking for, and then he walks carefully down the steps-after the previous night's ice storm, even the railings are slippery-and toward the Capitol. Under low-hanging clouds obscuring the dome, the columns are yellow like paper in old books, the stones behind them the colors of teeth unbrushed, the building's exterior a range of grays that don't show up on TV, where the whole thing looks just plain white.

Barney Frank is, by far, the most powerful gay person in Washington. As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he has the leverage to lobby colleagues on the two policy areas that, he says, tie for second place on his list of priorities after finance: LGBT issues and fishing. (His congressional district includes New Bedford, Mass., from which Captain Ahab set sail to hunt for Moby Dick.) Some gay activists in Washington find Frank's position cause for gloating: "Everyone -- even Rahm Emanuel -- has to come to Barney to ask for money," one says. "Barney is the gate you have to go through for money now, and guess what? That's a big ol' rainbow gate."

Frank is too sophisticated a strategist to articulate such a facile connection between his work on finance and gay rights. Yet he quietly revels in the unlikely convergence. When I enter his office, he doesn't say hello but points to a framed picture on the floor and says, "That's the new secretary of the Treasury [Timothy Geithner] at the first LGBT pride day at the New York Federal Reserve, before he was secretary. The first LGBT pride day in Federal Reserve history."

This is a new kind of power for an out gay man in Washington to have. "I think my being where I am is both cause and effect of a diminution of prejudice," Frank says. That prejudice, he's discovered, "is pretty thin. People think that they're more prejudiced than they are. And when confronted with the reality, the prejudice disappears very quickly. I've been put in a major position of power in this society. And the fact that I'm gay is, as it should be, irrelevant. I remind people that I'm gay from time to time because I want to get the maximum benefit out of diminishing the prejudice.

"People in the financial community come and they're very nice to me whether they want to be or not," he adds, a bull with a twinkle in his eye. "It's kind of hard for them to then be prejudiced in their communities."

He's also dogged in calling out bigotry regarding marriage equality. When I ask what, realistically, Obama can do for us this year, Frank's answer at first seems to take a detour, then switches back and makes a hard moral charge: "I think we'll get to the point where we should be insisting that liberals support marriage. I mean, nobody believes that they're really personally against it. They're just being political. I'd rather have them admit that. I think it's now time to start pushing people on marriage. I would ask the president in particular. I think he made a terrible mistake with Rick Warren. I think he overestimates his ability to charm these people. And I think he should be willing to draw the line a little sharper."

Though Frank and his gay colleagues will coordinate their legislative efforts on gay issues with the White House, they'll also continue, on their own, to refine a lobbying mechanism they created in the last Congress. Frank and Baldwin convened the Hill's first LGBT Equality Caucus in June 2008 because, as Baldwin explains, "there's probably nothing more powerful in persuading a member of Congress than to have a colleague look you in the eye and say, 'I really want you to do this, I really need you to do this; if you have any questions, how can I answer them?' I can't possibly, in a short time or even in several months, reach each member myself. You need to divide up, and it makes sense also to match people for these conversations where there's a relationship or knowledge or coterminous districts."

This is a tremendously significant step forward in the evolution of the gay movement's ability to wield power. Such caucus groups have long been a linchpin of organization for policy and interest groups in Congress. The creation of an organized gay lobby within the House -- after the November election, the bipartisan group grew from 52 initial members to 77 (74 of whom are straight) -- finally creates a condition of accountability to the movement's goals.

"One thing about my colleagues is, they fib a little," Frank says. "They wouldn't be convicted of perjury, but people in my business are very good at giving you the impression that they are with you when they haven't actually said that they are, and the normal human reaction is to accept that." Speaking specifically of lobbying colleagues to pass a transgender-inclusive version of ENDA, he says, "I have the list of people who have reputedly said that they support this, and I'm going to double-check it, because they'll tell me things that they won't be honest about with the lobbyists. I'm going to be walking around the floor of the House now, saying to people, 'I hear you're with us on this -- is that true?'E,f;"

Last November brought a reconfiguration of power in American politics as a whole, and specifically in the gay movement. The grassroots organization of Obama's presidential campaign and the outpouring of activism in the backlash against Prop. 8 gave strong voices to outsiders. In gay politics, it became clear that power, for now, is most easily mobilized on the issue of marriage -- and specifically, by anger at being denied the right to marry.

Those were object lessons of the overnight success of Join the Impact, the Web-based organization founded by Amy Balliett, a 26-year-old search engine optimizer in Seattle who coordinated simultaneous Prop. 8 protests on November 15 that drew more than a million participants in hundreds of cities throughout all 50 U.S. states and about a dozen other countries. "The turnout had a lot to do with anger," Balliett says. "Anger mobilizes. But I am not an angry person, and I don't want to promote anger. Trying to turn that anger into energy isn't the easiest thing to do." Controversy, though, keeps people engaged. With the Warren fiasco, Balliett says, Join the Impact's Web traffic jumped from 100,000 unique visitors per page, per day, to 1 million.

Collectively, gay people are still bruised from 1993, when Bill Clinton, after overreaching on our behalf with regard to the military ban, tried to recover by throwing us under the bus. Memories of that betrayal, combined with aftershocks of the rage that drove our recent Prop. 8 protests (rage that was exacerbated by the Warren situation), have given some grassroots activists a hair trigger. They are fearful that Obama will betray us too and skeptical that our own leaders will press for swift progress.

This is part of the movement's tradition. Out for Good , Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney's history of the struggle for gay civil rights, asserts that "the recurring theme of the gay movement" has been "not building on history but discarding it." The Gay Liberation Front did it to the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis; Gay Men's Health Crisis did it to the Gay Rights National Lobby and the National Gay Task Force. Since November, it has sometimes seemed that we were eager to burn down the house again. Balliett says, "There's a feeling in the grassroots movement that the top-down people don't ask for help. And it's not true. People like Joe Solmonese and Rea Carey ask me, How do we use social networking to involve more people? I think social networking is going to unify this movement in ways that we've never seen in the past.

"Social networking has a unifying effect, period," she continues, alluding to the unique foundation of gay politics -- if politics is broadly defined as the bonds that hold individuals together in a group: "It changed dating for the gay community, completely. When I was 17 years old in high school and had no idea how I could find anyone to talk to or date, PlanetOut was my solution. It revolutionized how we communicate as gay society."

Now, Balliett points out, the Web reaches further: "I have a friend who lives two hours outside of Seattle who thought that he was the only gay person in his neighborhood. Because of Join the Impact, he's found 30 people in his town who he can be friends with and have a sense of community and camaraderie with. He had been there for two years with one friend. Technology gives people the chance to realize they are not alone."

In a different way, this effect of technology applies to organizations as well. Carey remembers preparing a list of 80 policy priorities for Obama's transition team: "After you prepare a list like that, then usually you need to work long, hard hours to make sure it sees the light and go around to all the agencies. The transition team said, 'We'll put this online in the next couple of weeks, and we will give it to each agency.' That was a little disorienting for us, and it made some people frankly nervous: Sometimes we put things forward and they get taken over by the opposition and criticized. But the transition team wasn't nervous about secrets getting out. They said, 'If you have any more suggestions, let us know, we'll put them into the system.' The explicit sharing of information, and greater transparency of power, is a radical change in the culture of how issue-advocacy organizations interact with a presidential administration."

As Washington's tactics for working toward full equality change, so to are the tactics for coordinating that work with activism in the rest of the country. Both Carey and Solmonese regularly talk with Balliett about strategy. "The real question for this big, loose activism energy is, Where do you go with it?" Solmonese says. "What I keep asking Amy and others in this grassroots movement is, 'Do you have the same energy that you expended in the aftermath of Prop. 8, that same selfless will, to get on a bus and ride an hour to protest or staff a phone bank or go door to door and try to move public opinion?' That is the central question."

For the past eight years, when I have visited Washington, D.C., I have avoided the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. What's happened inside these places has made their outsides appear increasingly ominous and appalling. But on first seeing the Capitol during this latest trip, my heart leaped, to my surprise. I had the feeling that this building was mine again, in something like the way it was mine when I first visited this place as a child, when it stood for virtues and ideals in which I trusted unconditionally.

It's impossible, and would be unwise, to believe in these buildings again with such innocence. But I am trying to say, in some dim way, that gay people are now in a position to help recover the truths these places symbolize and that the stewards of these places deserve a healthy measure of our trust, because we are no longer strangers here. To reclaim the truths enshrined in these big white buildings, though, we have to accept a burden of mundane responsibility. With all that's in us, we have to commit to do the tedious, hard work of making these places ours, to accept the very boring blessing of being citizens in full.

The New Kings of the Hill View profiles of President Obama's LGBT appointees Brad Kiley Brian Bond Fred Hochberg John Berry Mike Perriello Michael Camunez Nancy Sutley

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