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by Bob Roehr
The swearing in of openly gay John Berry as Director of the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that oversees nearly 20 million federal employees, marked a world of change from when the government would fire someone simply for being gay.
First Lady Michelle Obama attended the April 23 ceremony.
Berry chose Constance Berry Newman (no relation) to administer the oath of office. She first met Berry 18 years ago when she was Director of OPM and he was a legislative assistant to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), now House Majority Leader.
Congress was then considering major legislation to allow for adjusting pay scales according to the local cost of living and to compete with the private sector in hiring federal employees.
“I believe that without John’s intellect, sensitivity to the issues, integrity and diplomatic skills the legislation would not have passed,” said Newman. She called Berry “the perfect person” for the job.
“The sweep of history is on display this afternoon,” Berry said near the start of his remarks. “I would like to recognize a civil rights pioneer who is with us today – Dr. Frank Kameny. He is a military veteran and a life-long activist.”
“For those of you who do not know, Dr. Kameny was fired from his federal job in 1957 solely because of his sexual orientation. At that time it was not only lawful to fire employees on this basis, it was official government policy.”
“In 1975, largely due to Frank’s efforts, this injustice was overturned by the US Civil Service Commission,” he continued. “It is the President’s and my opinion that employees should only be judged by their abilities to do the job and their performance on the job, and not by any other irrelevant facts.”
“In no small part, Dr. Kameny’s work, and other leaders like him, made it possible for me to stand here today. For that Frank, I thank you for your leadership, for your passion, and your persistence. And express our nation’s appreciation for your courage in teaching America to live up to our promise and our full potential.”
First Lady Michelle Obama told the gathering that Berry “is a man of great charisma and poise, not just a nice person but a smart person, someone who understands the vision of what is possible in this agency,”
She later stepped from the stage to shake hands with a number of people in the audience, singling out Kameny for special attention. “She apparently had been briefed and thanked me for my past contributions,” said Kameny, “I was very surprised.”
The soon-to-be 84-year-old activist said, “This is like a fairy tale where everything worked out happily ever after. I never would have expected it in quite this way. It is closure on my effort on this issue after 52 years.”
The young Kameny had a freshly minted PhD in astronomy from Harvard and was poised to play a role in the nascent space program when he was fired from the Army Map Service in December 1957, simply for being gay.
After losing his administrative hearings, Kameny continued the fight by serving as an adviser to other employees fighting the policy. He led the first gay rights picketing of the federal government at the White House, and in 1965 at what was then called the Civil Service Commission.
“Before that, they wouldn’t even meet with us to discuss the issues,” he said. Attitudes slowly began to change under the pressure and the anti-gay policy was eliminated in 1975.
“Everything hasn’t been resolved yet,” said Kameny. That includes benefits for same-sex couples who marry or have legally comparable partnerships. “We still have a way to go. Once we get past DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), things will tend to be resolved.”
In conversations with reporters following the ceremony, Berry said one of his first overall priorities will be to create training and a welcoming environment for those who have served our country in the military.
“We are going to work with each and every community, not just the LGBT community,” he said. “My responsibility is for all Americans and we are going to make sure that we have an effective workforce that accomplishes that.”
“The executive order (protecting gay and lesbian federal employees) that President Clinton signed is still in place,” he added. “One of the weaknesses is that there is not an enforcement mechanism for that. We are going to be looking at what we need to do to make sure that if those rules are violated, people have a process by which to achieve justice.”
Berry is aware that the executive order does not include protection for those who are transgender. He said, “We need to protect the T in the community and to the extend that requires law and regulations, we will seek that.”
The Defense of Marriage Act seems to preclude offering the same benefits to married same-sex couples that are offered to heterosexual couples. Berry said, “You can’t work around the law. I just took an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the Republic and I will do so.”
“But I think there will be efforts to change that legislation and I know that the President will be supportive of that.”
Rep Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) are preparing legislation “and that will open the avenue for us to correct and provide benefits.”
Berry views it not as a civil rights issue but as one of human resources. “It is my job to make sure we can recruit people,” he said. “The majority of the top 500 companies already provide (partner) benefits; it’s a tool in the tool belt that allows you to recruit and attract talented people.”
“The government shouldn’t care who you pray to, what country your father and mother came from, what color your skin is, or quite frankly, who you sleep with,” he added. “It should only care about one thing – can you do the job and how well are you doing the job once you are employed. That is what the merit system is based upon.”