Climate Change

Congress and the White House are looking at gay rights issues in a whole new light.

In 1969, a federal appeals court issued a landmark decision in the case Norton v. Macy, ruling that the Civil Service Commission could not allow the practice of firing federal employees solely on the grounds they were gay.

"The notion that it could be an appropriate function of the federal bureaucracy to enforce the majority's conventional codes of conduct in the private lives of its employees is at war with the elementary concepts of liberty, privacy and diversity," wrote the court's chief judge, David Bazelon.

The decision marked a major personal victory for Frank Kameny, who had been terminated from his Defense Department position in 1957 because he was outed as a homosexual, and since then had dedicated himself to fighting for the rights of gay federal employees. It was, in fact, one in a series of victories leading to the ultimate decision to overturn the federal ban on hiring gays and lesbians.

Fast-forward four decades. On April 3, John Berry became the first openly gay official confirmed to head the Civil Service Commission's successor agency, the Office of Personnel Management. And when Berry was formally sworn in, Kameny was invited to be one of his guests.

"I feel truly vindicated beyond anything I might ever have expected or imagined," Kameny wrote to Jonathan Rauch, a columnist at Government Executive's sister publication, National Journal, who wrote about the exchange for Independent Gay Forum. "It's like the perfect, contrived happy ending to a fictional fairy tale. It's too perfect to be true in reality. But there it is."

Much has changed in the past 40 years for gays and lesbians in government. And more change could be on the way. As Alyssa Rosenberg reports in our cover story this month, when it comes to gay-rights issues, the climate in Washington is much different than it was just a few months ago. Not only was Berry appointed as a result of Barack Obama's election, but two federal judges have recently issued orders directing the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to process benefits applications for the same-sex partners of two court employees.

OPM officials said earlier this year that the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program isn't in a position to process such benefits. But FEHBP officials might need to get ready to do so. Democrats in Congress, having solidified their hold on the House and Senate, are prepared to take up a bill known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend federal benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

That piece of legislation has been kicking around Capitol Hill for more than a decade without making much progress. But as Frank Kameny knows, things can change.

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