Resource Logo
The Washington Blade

Gay activists meet with Obama team: Leaders seek high-level LGBT appointees, policy changes


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 leaders.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said transition leaders were "very receptive" to requests from gay activists.

"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 changes.

"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 Fred Hochberg.

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 campaigns." 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 care." 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, Solmonese said.

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 ethnicity." 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 identity categories.

* 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 passports.

* Developing a plan to guide Congress in repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military.

* 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 appropriate way." 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 nation first.

"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 executive departments.

"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 optimistic." 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.

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 consulting firm.

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 community.

"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 campaign.

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 parade.

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.


Copyright © 2008 -The Washington Blade, Publisher. All rights reserved to Washington Blade. Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Washington Blade.

Information in this article was accurate in December 19, 2008. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.