OPM director calls for more action on gay rights

Lucian Perkins/ The Washington Post

The head of the Office of Personnel Management and the attorney general on Wednesday said the federal government must do more to ensure equal opportunities for gay and lesbian Americans.

In some of the most pointed remarks on the subject by an Obama administration official, OPM Director John Berry, the highest ranking openly gay person to serve in the executive branch, affirmed the president's support for gay Americans, saying, "with the help of a president who supports our cause, the aid of courageous fellow countrymen and women who love liberty, and with God's grace, we shall prevail" in the quest for civil rights.

Berry and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the Justice Department's celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.

Holder, who appeared with Berry at the event, said many of the same obstacles to equality for gay Americans that existed more than a decade ago are still around.

Berry drew on his personal background and experiences with family and friends to argue that public service is valuable no matter the sexual orientation of the person performing it. His father, he said, served with gay men at Guadalcanal during World War II, and told his son, " 'We didn't call 'em gays, but they were there, and died as bravely as everyone else.' "

The OPM director said his first partner, who died after a prolonged battle with HIV/AIDS, showed him the importance of supportive family and of policies that allowed Berry to care for him and be with him when he died, even though they were not legally married.

"My family has never known divorce," Berry said. "Were we married? No, but I dare anyone to say that we were not in love…. Where do you stand? Honoring love as precious and true wherever you find it, or with those who would demean or deny it? I urge you: Stand where you can be proud. Stand with service and truth. Stand with love. Stand for liberty and justice for all."

At the ceremony, the Justice Department's Equal Employment Opportunity staff and DoJ Pride, the affinity group for gay and lesbian employees, honored Frank Kameny, a former federal employee and gay civil rights pioneer who fought against discrimination and classifying gay federal workers as security risks. The event also praised Marc Salans, assistant director of Justice's Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, who has helped DoJ Pride target personnel policies that limit benefits for gay and lesbian workers.

Holder said he planned to work closely to work with DoJ Pride to ensure that Justice offered equal opportunities to all employees no matter their sexual orientation, saying it was the department's responsibility to ensure "the right of openly LGBT employees to do their jobs with distinction and professionalism."

Other Obama administration officials have taken steps to extend benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian federal employees. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is modifying internal department manuals to give domestic partners of Foreign Service officers access to health clinics, emergency evacuations and employment opportunities when they are deployed overseas. And the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is implementing a domestic partner benefit program negotiated during the Bush administration between the agency and the National Treasury Employees Union.

Berry said in a May meeting with reporters that he expected President Obama to back legislation -- the 2009 Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act -- that would give the domestic partners of gay and lesbian federal employees access to health and retirement benefits in exchange for their agreement to abide by rules governing issues such as nepotism.

"The president has asked both State and us to do what we can," he said at that meeting. "Where we need legislation, we will seek legislation."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec