February 20, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Still waiting for first LGBT Cabinet appointment
California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez is set to be in contention as labor secretary, but are LGBT groups pushing for his nomination? (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez is set to be in contention as labor secretary, but are LGBT groups pushing for his nomination? (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Obama is facing a flurry of requests to take administrative action on behalf of the LGBT community at the onset of his second term. One call that has so far been ignored is for the appointment of an openly LGBT Cabinet member.

In recent months, LGBT groups — such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund — have said the appointment of an openly LGBT Cabinet member is important because it would provide visibility to the community and break a key remaining glass ceiling. No president has ever appointed an openly LGBT Cabinet member.

In November, Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, told the Washington Blade the LGBT community is “rightly interested” in a Cabinet appointment as well as a G-20 ambassadorship.

But in comparison to other requests, such as participation in the lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court against California’s Proposition 8 or an executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors, the issue of appointing an LGBT Cabinet member hasn’t yet received significant attention.

Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based advocate and proponent of an LGBT Cabinet appointment, said he couldn’t say whether action from advocacy groups on the appointment is sufficient because he doesn’t know what’s happening behind the scenes, but acknowledged the public pressure is “rather muted.”

“I think that right now the organized political gay community in Washington has a very strong connection with, and relationship with the president, and he has delivered for us in many ways,” Socarides said. “So I think that there is, no doubt, a reluctance to rock the boat for the most part.”

Jim Burroway, a gay editor of the Tuczon, Ariz.-based blog Box Turtle Bulletin, said he hasn’t given the issue the “thought it deserves,” but acknowledged the importance of pushing for high-profile LGBT appointments.

“I’m always reluctant to say that this appointment or that appointment needs to be an LGBT person, but in the general scheme of things, it’s certainly time that an appointment somewhere reflects the diversity of the nation, or even of corporate America, when it comes to LGBT inclusion,” Burroway said.

HRC and the Victory Fund had no comment last month when Obama selected Sally Jewell, a Washington State-based businessperson, for the role of interior secretary, even though that selection meant John Berry, the gay head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, didn’t get the job. Although Berry was passed over, Jewell is a known advocate of the LGBT community and helped drive business support for marriage equality when it was on the ballot last year in her state.

Media speculation that Berry would be tapped to head the Interior Department was widespread because of his close ties to the administration and his background as a lower-level official in the department during the Clinton years and service as head of the National Wildlife Federation and National Zoo.

Comparatively, LGBT groups like HRC and OutServe-SLDN were aggressive in calling on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to extend the available benefits to gay troops with same-sex partners, which ultimately led to the Pentagon taking action.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said in response to the comparative silence that HRC has “been clear from the start” that it would like high-profile LGBT appointments during Obama’s second term.

“We have not called for any specific position to be filled by any specific individual and it is not our intent to comment on every personnel decision,” Cole-Schwartz said. “As the president continues to make nominations in his second term, there remains an abundance of exceptional LGBT Americans willing and able to serve and it is our hope that we will see an openly gay Cabinet secretary and other historic appointments.”

Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesperson, touted the success of the Presidential Appointments Project in response to a similar inquiry. The Project has helped facilitate the appointment of at least 260 openly LGBT officials within the Obama administration.

“The Project continues to advocate for qualified, experienced openly LGBT individuals who are capable of becoming leaders at all levels of government, including at the Cabinet level,” Dison said. “Because personnel decisions are by their nature sensitive, we believe our advocacy is best done privately.”

Even though the position of interior secretary will be off the table once Jewell receives Senate confirmation, other positions are open in the Cabinet that are possibilities for LGBT appointments.

One that has sparked media attention recently is the potential appointment of gay California Assembly Speaker John Perez as a replacement for Hilda Solis as labor secretary.

John O’Connor, executive director of Equality California, said Perez would be an excellent choice as labor secretary because he’s a champion of both LGBT people and the working class.

“Perez has built bridges between the LGBT community and labor,” O’Connor said. “Given his legacy of accomplishment in our state, we are incredibly supportive of his candidacy and would be so proud to see it happen.”

Fred Hochberg, the gay head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, has been viewed as a potential candidate for the role of commerce secretary. In December, an administration official told the Blade the White House is “looking carefully” at Hochberg for the position. However, he may have been passed over as well if media reports are correct that Obama is close to nominating banker Penny Pritzker for the role.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to a Blade inquiry on whether the administration values sexual orientation and gender identity as an element of diversity in high-profile appointments that he has “no personnel announcements.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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