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Locked in the

Locked in the


Demands that Obama appoint a gay cabinet member seem to come with a cost -- ignoring that person's qualifications just to get a gay on Obama's team.

When the rumor first surfaced that President-elect Barack Obama's transition team was strongly considering union activist Mary Beth Maxwell for secretary of Labor, gay ears perked up. Gay news outlets across the country and around the world covered the story with marked interest. Gay blogs covered every hint and rumor about the selection process. The Human Rights Campaign, which had already endorsed Rep. Linda Sanchez for the job, announced that it would simultaneously endorse Maxwell. Why such fascination? Maxwell, you see, is a lesbian, which is apparently a very important qualification when it comes to the study of ergonomics, implementation of the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act, and compliance with the Office of Labor-Management Standards.

My reaction to the news that Maxwell was under serious consideration was less enthusiastic. Whereas the gay press focused almost entirely on Maxwell's attraction to women, the mainstream media was more interested in her ardent support for a deceptively titled bill called the Employee Free Choice Act. Under current labor law, if a union wishes to organize a workplace, it must first win the consent of a simple majority of workers who vote the same way the rest of Americans do biennially on the first Tuesday of November -- by secret ballot.

The Employee Free Choice Act would change this. Instead, all a union would need to secure the right of representation is collect cards signed by a bare majority of employees. Armed with a list of workers' names, union organizers would know who has -- and who has not -- publicly indicated their support for the union. Such a system clearly lends itself to abuse, as union bosses can pressure and intimidate workers into supporting unionization. Maxwell, a longtime union activist, has been one of the most outspoken supporters of the measure.

That Maxwell is sexually attracted to women is all well and good, but her support for the Employee Free Choice Act ought to be more significant. And while it would be nice to have an openly gay cabinet secretary, I'd rather have a straight one who doesn't support this legislation -- barring that, anyone who isn't as zealous a proponent of it as Maxwell. Should this opposition to the appointment of an openly gay person -- opposition based not a whit on said person's sexuality but rather my sincere beliefs about the damage she could inflict upon the nation's economy -- make me a pariah among gays?

Ultimately, Obama passed over Maxwell in favor of Rep. Hilda Solis, who is no less devoted to the Employee Free Choice Act. But in the weeks since this decision was made, gays have grown more vocal in their demand that someone, anyone, gay get a high-level cabinet appointment.

Attention soon turned to Fred Hochberg, a gay man who served in the Small Business Administration under President Clinton, whom gay activists favored for Commerce secretary after the scandal-plagued Bill Richardson withdrew himself from consideration.

"We're not pushing his name just because he's gay," insisted Phil Sousa, the creator of the website EqualRep, which is pressuring the Obama administration into appointing the first openly gay cabinet secretary. "We're pushing his name because he's highly qualified and the fact that he's openly gay is kind of icing on the cake there."

In other words, they're pushing Hochberg because he's gay. Were he not, they wouldn't be pushing him.

While it's important to have openly gay public figures as advocates for equality, role models for the young, and living proof that we are not the depraved perverts our adversaries portray us as, the near-singular focus on obtaining an openly gay cabinet nominee comes at the expense of more important gay rights causes. It essentializes gay people down to their sexual preference.

Inaugurated in 1993 after the nostrums of identity politics had successfully pervaded the media, universities, and popular culture, Bill Clinton was the first president to appoint cabinet secretaries under the rubric of a racial and gender spoils system. Soon after his election, for instance, it was revealed that Clinton would consider only women for the job of attorney general. This poisoned the opening months of his presidency, as insufficient vetting resulted in the scotching of several nominees over a variety of damaging revelations.

It's understandable that gay activists would want openly gay people in high levels of government, and I stand with them. But there's something a bit pathetic in the way gay organizations and the gay media have fixated on the appointment of openly gay individuals. By focusing so heavily on the sexual orientations of the people under consideration, it seems like we're fighting for scraps off the table of the incoming Obama administration. We're looking for a singular trophy when we ought to be fighting for a turkey in every pot, and it reeks of desperation.

According to a recent Advocate.comreport by Kerry Eleveld, the leaders of the nation's major gay organizations spent the "bulk of a two-hour meeting" with transition officials last month pressing for the appointment of an openly gay cabinet secretary. Wouldn't their time have been better spent talking about how to pass pro-gay legislation in the upcoming congressional term?

While a cabinet appointment would be a breakthrough, it's hardly the impressive accomplishment that gay groups are portraying it as. Openly gay elected officials like Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin had to fight their way up the congressional food chain to earn national prominence; they didn't get their jobs thanks to a well-moneyed gay lobby pressuring for their selection.

Indeed, a cabinet appointment is not always a sign of merit; it's often as much, if not more, a result of political favors, a desire to please an important political constituency or a mixture of the two.

But at this point, thanks to the blatant way gay rights groups have gone about campaigning for it, such a selection would be perceived as cynical tokenism. And given all the public pressure directed at Obama to appoint a gay person to a high-profile job, the appointee would automatically be viewed as the recipient of preferential treatment. With so much attention devoted to that appointee's sexuality -- as opposed to their actual qualifications -- the first openly gay cabinet secretary would be robbed of their individuality, and their accomplishments in office would come second to their sexual orientation.

Like everyone else, gays should be judged by their abilities. This quest for homosexual affirmative action is a throwback to the mau-mauing of women's and ethnic groups during the Clinton administration. As with racial and gender preferences, when important positions are "set aside" for a certain class rather than the most qualified individuals, everyone loses out, not least of which the intended beneficiaries. The obsessive focus on openly gay cabinet appointees risks further ghettoization of gays, as we are compelled to "support" whatever gay figure is foisted upon us by gay organizations irrespective of whether or not we agree with that person's political views.

Gay people have every right to lobby the government to address their concerns. But by demanding that Obama prioritize sexual orientation in the hiring of employees, we diminish ourselves, not just collectively but as individuals.

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James Kirchick