June 21, 2010 at 8:06 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
U.S. Justice Department celebrates Pride

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act protects LGBT people ‘from the most brutal forms of bias-motivated violence.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday emphasized the Obama administration’s progress on LGBT issues — particularly at the Department of Justice — while acknowledging more work is needed.

The attorney general made his remarks during a Justice Department reception commemorating June as Pride month. The event was coordinated by DOJ Pride, an affinity group for LGBT employees at the Justice Department.

During his speech, Holder cited the enactment of hate crimes protections legislation as among the major achievements for the Obama administration, noting the U.S. Code didn’t have a single line protecting LGBT people prior to the bill becoming law.

“Today, the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act — which the president signed into law last October — does just that, finally protecting our nation’s [LGBT] individuals from the most brutal forms of bias-motivated violence,” Holder said.

The attorney general also recognized the Obama administration’s recently announced reinterpretation of the Violence Against Women Act to include same-sex couples in situations involving domestic violence as another measure of progress.

Additionally, Holder mentioned the institution of a diversity management plan and the appointment of Channing Phillips as deputy associate attorney general for diversity, a newly created position.

Holder said these actions would help ensure the Justice Department can “effectively recruit, hire, retain, and develop a workforce that reflects our nation’s rich diversity — a department that welcomes and encourages the contributions of its LGBT employees.”

Still, Holder said more work remains to be done despite these accomplishments, although he didn’t mention any specific items the Obama administration has yet to address.

“Too many of the challenges that confronted the LGBT community 16 years ago — when DOJ Pride was founded — confront us still today,” Holder said. “Too many of the same obstacles that existed then remain for us to overcome.”

The attorney general was well received by the more than 100 Justice Department employees who attended the reception and received a standing ovation before and after his remarks.

Also offering remarks during the event were prominent LGBT people who were the first to hold certain high-profile positions within the Justice Department. Jenny Durkan, a lesbian and U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington State, emphasized the importance of the Justice Department’s mission within the federal government.

“We are the Department of Justice,” she said. “In all of government, we are the only ones whose name is also a mission, an inspiration and obligation.”

Durkan, the first openly gay U.S. attorney, said being openly gay can help “change hearts and minds” to make progress on LGBT issues.

She said studies and experience both show “the No. 1 thing” that can change a person’s views of the LGBT community is knowing an LGBT person.

“It takes acts of courage to come out to your family, to your friends, to your co-workers, but those acts of courage speak volumes,” she said. “It’s the single easiest thing that anyone of us can do to achieve equality.”

Sharon Lubinski, the first openly gay U.S. Marshal and who serves in the district of Minnesota, recounted her 1991 coming out story when she was serving as a sergeant in the Minneapolis police force to demonstrate the importance of being open about one’s sexual orientation.

Prior to that time, Lubinski said she was not publicly out and it affected police work when two gay men were murdered in a gay Minneapolis neighborhood. Lubinski noted that she had prided herself with her outreach to other minority populations in the city — including the black and Native American communities — but was unable to extend this outreach to LGBT people because she wasn’t out.

“At this point in time, in this critical point, when two gay men were murdered and I could have helped, I said nothing,” she said. “I said nothing and I was ashamed of myself.”

Shortly after, Lubinski made the decision to come out and made her sexual orientation public in a front-page article of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper. Lubinski said it was most difficult coming out to her colleagues, but added on that day she “never received so many hugs from police officers before.”

Recalling her experience becoming a U.S. Marshal, Lubinski said her sexual orientation wasn’t an issue either with the Justice Department or during the confirmation process before the U.S. Senate.

“What they were concerned about was my qualifications, my integrity and my ability to be a U.S. Marshal,” she said.

At the conclusion of the event, DOJ Pride presented its Gerald B. Roemer Community Service Award to David Catania (I-At Large), a gay D.C. City Council member, and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (D). Catania has been credited with leading the way to the legalization of same-sex marriage in D.C., while Gansler issued a legal opinion saying Maryland can recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

DOJ Pride also presented the James R. Douglas Award to Christopher Hook, the organization’s president and budget analyst for the Justice Department’s Justice Management Division.

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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