Feds could gain champion for domestic partner benefits

Gay and lesbian federal employees stand to gain a strong advocate if Smithsonian National Zoological Park Director John Berry becomes director of the Office of Personnel Management.

If nominated and confirmed, Berry, whose name started circulating last week as the front-runner for the OPM position, would be the highest-ranking openly gay official in government history, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Advocacy group representatives say they are optimistic he would fight to expand health and other benefits for same-sex couples.

Leonard Hirsch, international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution and president of Federal GLOBE, a group that represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, said Berry's record at the Interior Department, where he served as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Clinton administration, provides clues to how he would approach gay rights as OPM director.

"Within what is possible, John worked within Interior on their nondiscrimination statements, their avenues of redress, training [and] benefits -- the whole host of issues that helped [to] make the workplace one that's freer from harassment and discrimination," Hirsch said. "[His efforts] made Interior, while he was there, the model for all agencies."

Berry's accomplishments at Interior include overseeing the creation of a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation; expanding relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of Interior employees; establishing a liaison to gay and lesbian employees; and eliminating discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service's law enforcement standards, including bans on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees.

Berry's efforts touched on contracting as well. Under his watch, the Interior Office of Small and Disadvantaged Businesses began outreach to gay and lesbian-owned firms and chambers of commerce.

OPM's potential nominee also helped lead efforts culminating in the addition of the Stonewall Inn in New York City -- the site of riots that helped spark the American gay rights movement -- to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

In recognition of those efforts, the Department of the Interior Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual Employees Association presented Berry with its New Millennium Human Rights Award in 2001 and named the prize after him.

Hirsch said if Berry becomes OPM director, he likely would change the agency's approach to domestic partnership benefits. Government employees cannot enroll their partners in federal health care or relocation programs. Critics say the lack of such benefits imposes unfair financial hardships on families headed by same-sex partners and makes it more difficult for gay federal employees to move for their jobs.

Under the Bush administration, OPM opposed legislation (S. 2521) that would have granted federal employees domestic partner benefits if they abided by financial disclosure and nepotism rules.

Howard Weizmann, OPM's former deputy director, said during a September 2008 hearing that the agency opposed the bill because most same-sex couples cannot prove their relationship through documentation comparable to a state-issued marriage certificate, opening the door to benefits fraud. Weizmann drew criticism for citing the 2007 Adam Sandler movie, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, in which two heterosexual firefighters pretend to marry to protect their retirement benefits, as evidence that such fraud is possible.

"I think what the president has done with the [pending]appointment of John at OPM is to say very clearly that this administration is disavowing the totally personal testimony that was given by OPM last year in that hearing," Hirsch said. "I really can't say that OPM had a policy. I think they made a decision to make a statement with no analysis. There will be analysis. John will walk in there with the facts."

Berry's appointment and confirmation as OPM director would be a milestone for federal employees and "a meaningful step forward for the [entire] lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said.

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