Washngton Blade - December 19, 2008
Gay activists met with members of President-elect Barack Obama's
transition team last week in a two-hour session focused on policy
issues and presidential appointments, according to gay group
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said
transition leaders were "very receptive" to requests from gay
"I think they went to great lengths to explain their vision for
how [policy initiatives] would work and how our community would
be a part of that," he said.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task
Force, said transition team officials were attentive during the
meeting and very appreciate of the clarity of recommended policy
"They were taking notes, they were listening, they were
responding, they were asking questions, they were a very, very
engaged transition team and that bodes well for our community
moving forward," she said.
About 60 people attended the Dec. 10 meeting, including
transition leaders such as John Podesta, co-chair of Obama's
transition team; Jim Messina, who is in charge of Obama's
personnel decisions; Mike Strautmanis, director of public liaison
and intergovernmental affairs; Melanie Barnes, whom Obama tapped
to become the White House's domestic policy director; and Parag
Mehta, the transition team's liaison for minority groups,
according to activists.
Gay members of the transition team also were at the meeting,
Solmonese said, including Roberta Achtenberg, Elaine Kaplan and
The Obama transition team did not respond to a request for
comment on the meeting.
Appointing more openly gay people to high positions in the Obama
administration was a major focus of the meeting.
Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, urged
Obama's team to give serious consideration to appointing former
Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Policy Management &
Budget John Berry, who is gay, to a cabinet post. Obama later
chose U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) for the job.
"President-elect Obama promises a diverse administration filled
with talented individuals from all walks of life," Wolfe said
during the meeting, according to his prepared remarks. "This must
include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.
Anything less is not fully inclusive, and that could be seen as
an indication that our community is little more than an ATM for
Solmonese said Wolfe had "a very legitimate point" and "there is
going to be that censure if there is not a high-level person" in
the Obama administration who is openly gay.
Obama has noted "his vision of diversity and a diverse
administration very clearly includes GLBT Americans," Solmonese
said, adding that he thinks "there is an expectation that he will
hold true to that, now that he's been elected president."
Carey said activists also told transition officials that the gay
community is interested in being part of the major issues of the
day, whether they be the economic crisis or health care reform.
"I encouraged the transition team to view our community not
simply as interested in what they might think of as discreet LGBT
issues," she said, "but to fully honor that we are part and
parcel of the people that are losing their homes, the people
losing their retirement funds, the people who are losing their
jobs and the people who do not have access to adequate health
Activists made it clear that the gay community wants to be "part
of creating solutions to these problems" and asked transition
officials to make sure that "LGBT people are not left behind when
these discussions are taking place," Carey said.
Besides Berry, activists urged the transition team to consider
bringing into the administration Mary Beth Maxwell, a lesbian and
founding executive director of American Rights at Work, who is
being considered for labor secretary, and Hochberg, a gay man who
is being considered to head up the Small Business Administration,
Last week, Obama brought in the first openly gay person to a
prominent position in his administration by tapping Nancy Sutley,
deputy mayor of Los Angeles for energy and environment, to head
the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Wolfe commended the decision to bring Sutley on board and said in
a statement that her nomination "sends a signal to young people
that they can participate in their government at its highest
levels, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender or
Wolfe told the Blade that transition officials were "very
receptive" to requests to appoint gay people to the
administration and said Obama's team told gay activists they "we
would be very happy with the results of the appointments."
"Our point is we will be happy if there is a cabinet-level
appointment," he said. "Anything less than a cabinet-level
appointment would demonstrate that they did not hear us."
Wolfe said "there's no doubt" that the Obama White House would
include more gay people than earlier administrations, but added
that with the number of cabinet positions that are already
filled, "the day for [Obama's team] to demonstrate that America's
promise is open to LGBT people are dwindling at that level."
Non-legislative changes urged
Solmonese said his role at the meeting was to discuss
non-legislative changes that Obama's administration could make to
improve the lives of gay and transgender Americans.
He said he presented the transition team an 80-page document of
proposed changes to consider.
A coalition of gay activist groups compiled the recommendations,
Solmonese said, and HRC was responsible for drafting proposed
executive orders that would make the changes.
A 12-page executive summary of the document outlines the
recommendations, which include expanding President Clinton's
executive order barring discrimination in the federal workplace
on the basis of sexual orientation to include gender identity.
Additionally, the document calls on Obama to develop a national
HIV/AIDS strategy and to fund scientifically based programs to
confront diseases affecting the gay community.
Other recommendations include:
* Changing rules in the State Department so that the partners of
gay Foreign Service officers can receive the same benefits as the
spouses of their straight counterparts. The partners of gay
Foreign Service officers are currently denied access to certain
medical facilities, language training and emergency evacuation.
* Expanding an existing executive order to require that the
federal government only hire contractors that have
non-discrimination provisions for sexual orientation and gender
* For transgender people, allowing the Internal Revenue Service
to provide reimbursements for medical expenses incurred in the
gender-transition process through tax-preferred flexible spending
accounts. Also, allowing transgender people to change their
gender markers on federal documents and records, including
* Developing a plan to guide Congress in repealing "Don't Ask,
Don't Tell," which prohibits openly gay people from serving in
* Having the Justice Department issue a ruling to clarify that
interstate domestic violence and stalking provisions under the
Violence Against Women Act apply in situations where the offender
and the victims are of the same gender.
* Removing HIV from the list of "communicate disease[s] of public
health significance" to allow HIV-positive foreign nationals to
enter the United States.
* Nominating judges who have "a temperament that would enable
them to make decisions fairly and with an open mind."
Solmonese didn't set a timeline for the administration to
implement the suggested changes, but said Obama could act on them
as soon as he takes office.
"I think the intention is certainly there," Solmonese said, "it's
just that ... you need to have the right policy people and the
right legal team in place to ... actually implement them in an
Carey said she similarly recommended non-legislative policy
changes for 33 agencies within the federal government, including
changes related to aging and health and human services.
The changes could be made easily, Carey said, but added that she
expected the administration to take on other issues affecting the
"Obviously, they've got the economic crisis that they have to
attend to first, so everybody is expecting and hoping that's what
they will focus on," she said, "but certainly some of these
changes can be made very easily and are low-hanging fruit."
Solmonese said other gay activists that attended the meeting
included H. Alexander Robinson, executive director of the
National Black Justice Coalition, who discussed HIV/AIDS; Mara
Keisling, executive director of the National Center for
Transgender Equality, who discussed trans issues; and Len Hirsch,
president of Federal Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Employees (GLOBE),
who discussed personnel.
The Dec. 10 meeting was not the only time this month that gay
activists have met with transition team leaders. David Smith,
HRC's director of policy and strategy, said gay leaders also met
Dec. 11 with officials making the transition decisions for
"Official after official after official was just completely blown
away by what we presented," Smith said. "Nobody promised us
anything, but again the sense I got was just incredibly
Wolfe said the Victory Fund also had other meetings and
communications with the Obama team since the Dec. 10 meeting.
Leaders at the Dec. 10 meeting also talked about arranging a
subsequent meeting to discuss legislative priorities for the
Obama administration, Solmonese said, but a time for this meeting
was not immediately scheduled.
Gay electors vote for Obama
A handful of gays were among the members of the Electoral College
who cast their votes Monday for Obama.
On Election Day, when citizens across the nation cast their
ballots for a presidential candidate, the votes in fact went to
electors who would later cast their vote for president, in
accordance with the U.S. Constitution. Obama won 365 electors,
the most for any presidential candidate since Clinton in 1996,
while Republican presidential nominee John McCain took 173
Electors cast their votes for president Monday. In accordance
with constitutional law, the votes will be counted during a joint
session of Congress on Jan. 6.
The Florida Electoral College included two openly gay people:
Chip Arndt, a businessman and local gay activist, and Gena
Keebler, president for Luminosity, Inc., a criminal justice
Arndt, also known for winning CBS' "Amazing Race" in 2003, said
he and Keebler are the first openly gay people to serve as
electors for Florida and were "very honored" to represent the gay
"From my understanding, being an elector is an honor and it's
reflective of hopefully the hard work [we] did," he said.
Arndt said he helped Obama campaign in Florida by participating
in "get out the vote" efforts.
Keebler said being designated as an elector was a "tremendous
honor" and that she campaigned her "heart out for Barack Obama"
starting in February 2007 after taking leave from her job.
"I took nearly two years away from my work to work hard for Sen.
Obama," she said. "For me, my only reason for trying to get
involved was just trying to get Barack Obama elected as our next
president and turn this nation around."
Keebler said she chaired an organization in Tampa Bay, Fla.,
called the "O-Train." Members of the group engaged in voter
registration, did canvassing and participated in Pride
celebrations to urge people to vote for Obama.
Both Arndt and Keebler said they did not apply or lobby to be
electors for Obama and that they were simply chosen by his
In California, David Sanchez, president of the California
Teachers Association and a gay elector, was chosen as chair for
the state's Electoral College, according to Equality California.
Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, commended
the decision to make Sanchez chair in a Monday statement and said
electors "demonstrated leadership and vision in electing David
Sanchez as their chair, a most worthy choice."
In Oregon, Frank Dixon, vice-chair of state's Democratic Party
and past president of its gay caucus, was among the state's seven
electors to vote for Obama.
In a statement Monday, Dixon, who is gay, said being an elector
was "one of the greatest honors" of his life.
"This is more than a vote for president," he said. "It's a vote
for equality. An Obama presidency means gays and lesbians will
have a friend in the White House and a shot at equal legal
standing in America."
Scott Tucker, spokesperson for the Log Cabin Republicans, said he
didn't know if there were any gay electors who voted for McCain.
Local group to march in inaugural parade
D.C.'s Different Drummers, a local gay music organization, will
help fill the slots for the first openly gay contingent to march
in a presidential inaugural parade.
The organization will take up about 20 slots in the 177 places
offered to the Lesbian & Gay Band Association (LGBA) for a
performance in the parade Jan. 20, according to a statement.
Zachary Parker, the group's marching band director, intends to
serve as one of the music directors for the LGBA contingent.
Parker, who's gay, said being based in D.C. was a major reason
for why D.C.'s Different Drummers wanted to participate in the
A "broad swath of instrumentation" would fill up the 20 slots
allotted to D.C.'s Different Drummers, Parker said, including
percussionists, trombone players and clarinet players.
Parker said he is "extremely honored" that LGBA chose him to be
one of the leaders for the contingent.
"It's a huge honor to be able ... to lead something as historic as
what this inauguration is going to be," he said.