Obama names gay agency head

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The last week leading up to the inauguration of the new president has brought several LGBT-related political developments: Following the announcement that openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson would give an invocation during the pre-Inauguration celebration, eight new appointments were revealed to be in the works and an unexpected skeleton emerged from a completely overlooked archival closet.

Most significant by far, in terms of political importance, are the new appointments, albeit in various stages of being vetted, finalized and announced.

President-elect Obama named openly gay National Zoo director John Berry to head the Office of Personnel Management. It’s a bit short of the Secretary of Interior position gay leaders had hoped for but, it’s the highest-ranking position ever for an openly gay appointee. The Office of Personnel Management, with more than 5,000 employees and an annual budget of about $1.5 billion, is the hiring agency of the federal government’s 3-million-strong civilian workforce.

In addition to being director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Berry was assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Department of the Interior under President Clinton and served as head of the Congressionally chartered National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Berry had been named by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an advocacy group that works to elect openly gay officials, as one of its LGBT Presidential Appointments Project candidates, and singled out by Victory Fund CEO Chuck Wolfe as a strong contender for a cabinet position.

The transition team this week did not officially confirm reports that Berry’s nomination is imminent, but gave indications that an announcement could come in the next few days.

The transition team also is expected to confirm widespread reports that openly gay businessman Fred Hochberg will be named to chair the Export-Import Bank, and that activist Brian Bond will be named deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. Hochberg, a former HRC board member, was an acting administrator of the Small Business Administration under Clinton. The Export-Import Bank helps finance the export of U.S. goods and services.

HRC President Joe Solmonese called Hochberg “one of the most highly qualified and experienced public servants in our community,” adding: “The fact that President-elect Obama has tapped him for such an important economic position speaks well for the LGBT community.”

Bond, former head of the Victory Fund, served as director of constituencies for the Obama presidential campaign and, for a time, was head of the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT outreach. The Office of Public Liaison conducts outreach through briefings, meetings and events at the White House to various constituency groups, depending on the president’s priorities.

Other openly LGBT people whose appointments have not yet been officially confirmed, but which are expected to be announced soon, include Moe Vela, as director of operations in the Office of the Vice President; Dave Noble, as White House liaison to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; David Medina, as deputy chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Obama; and Karine Jean-Pierre, as White House liaison to the Department of Labor.

On Jan. 8, the transition team officially announced the appointment of Anthony Bernal as director of scheduling for Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, a position he held during the campaign as well. Bernal, a graduate of the University of Texas El Paso, served in the scheduling offices of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

If all these appointees are finalized and announced, they will bring to 10 the number of openly LGBT people thus far named to positions in the Obama White House and administration. Previously, the Obama transition named Los Angeles deputy mayor Nancy Sutley to chair his White House Council on Environmental Quality and Brad Kiley as director of the White House Office of Management and Administration.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that Mark Dybul, an openly gay physician who has served as President Bush’s ambassador for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief for the past three years, will remain in his position, at least for now.

THE SKELETON

One thing the Obama transition team had no comment on this week was a report Tuesday from the Chicago gay newspaper Windy City Times that Obama supported gay-marriage equality 13 years ago.

As the Democratic presidential candidate, Obama was, like most other Democratic presidential candidates, against gay marriage but in favor of gay couples having the same rights and benefits. But as a candidate for the Illinois state Senate in 1996, Obama was for gay marriage.

That year, Obama signed a typed letter to the Chicago gay newspaper Outlines (acquired by Windy City in 2000) that said, among other things, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” That same year, he also signed a questionnaire, filled out for an Illinois gay political-action committee, that asked whether he would support a resolution asking that the state “not interfere with same-gender couples who chose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of civil marriage.” He, or a campaign aide, wrote in, “I would support such a resolution.”

Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim found the two documents while conducting research for a Chicago Gay History Project. Baim said Obama’s position on gay marriage began to change by 2004, when she interviewed him during his race for the U.S. Senate. In that interview, she noted, Obama said, “I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily, just as a strategic issue.” Asked to explain his comment further, Obama said: “What I’m saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed … I think that, to the extent that we can get the rights, I’m less concerned about the name … I think that is my No. 1 priority. In an environment in which the Republicans are going to use a particular language that has all sorts of connotations in the broader culture as a wedge issue, to prevent us moving forward in securing those rights, then I don’t want to play their game.”