As President Obama makes his transition to a second term in office, talk has already begun about building on the excitement from Election Day successes for the LGBT community with additional milestones: the first-ever appointments of an openly LGBT Cabinet member and G-20 ambassador.
LGBT advocates see the planned exodus of many high-ranking officials from the Obama administration at the start of the second term as an opportunity for Obama to replace officials with high-profile LGBT appointments.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama has an opportunity “to represent the diversity of our great country” by appointing qualified LGBT people to high public office.
“Our community is rightly interested in the Cabinet and a G-20 ambassadorship,” Sainz said. “This president has been committed to ensuring that his administration is inclusive of all Americans and a second term gives him an opportunity to continue this progress.”
No president has ever appointed an LGBT person to the Cabinet before. Two individuals who already have high-ranking positions in the Obama administration have emerged as potential openly LGBT Cabinet members: John Berry as secretary of the interior and Fred Hochberg as commerce secretary. Berry currently serves as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Hochberg is chair of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
Berry has experience that would be relevant to heading a department charged with managing federal parks and natural resources. Most notably, he was head of the National Zoo in D.C. prior to his appointment as OPM director. Under the Clinton administration, Berry was assistant secretary of the interior for policy, management and budget and at the start of the Bush administration was director of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.
In addition to being head of the export credit agency for the United States, Hochberg also has a background that would make him a possible candidate for commerce secretary. Under the Clinton administration, Hochberg was deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration and later became the organization’s acting administrator.
An appointment of an openly LGBT person as U.S. ambassador to one of the countries in the G-2o, or countries with the 20 largest economies, would also be historic because no such nomination has happened before. However, three openly gay people have served as U.S. ambassadors. Former President Clinton made the first such appointment in 1997 when he named James Hormel as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Former President George W. Bush named Michael Guest as U.S. ambassador to Romania and President Obama named David Huebner as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said his organization continues to push for LGBT appointments at all levels of the administration as it has done since 2008 through the Presidential Appointments Project, a joint project led by the Victory Fund that serves as a talent bank for LGBT people seeking appointments in the administration.
“That obviously has been a great success,” Dison said. “The Obama administration has more out LGBT people than any other president — in fact, all presidents combined before him. So, we’re certainly going to continue with the project and making sure people understand that the project exists … and working with the White House Office of Presidential Personnel to make sure that they have the resources that we’re building here to provide those resumes.”
Dison said the Victory Fund has no specific goal for the appointment of an LGBT person to a specific office such as a Cabinet-level position or an ambassadorship, although he acknowledged such an appointment would be “absolutely” historic.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to a Washington Blade inquiry, “I have no personnel announcements to make.”
In addition to the appointment of LGBT people to the Obama administration, advocates are also mindful about the impact of Cabinet-level departures on LGBT issues. One such departure is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who’s expected to step down.
That position is important to the LGBT community because the defense secretary can implement openly transgender service and administrative changes to provide gay service members spousal benefits afforded to straight troops — which include joint duty assignments, issuance of IDs, use of the commissary and family housing. Health and pension partner benefits can’t be afforded to gay service members because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Zeke Stokes, spokesperson for the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said his organization wants Obama to nominate a defense secretary who has “an unequivocal commitment to fairness and equality.”
“Should it not happen before he or she takes the helm of the Defense Department, the new Secretary should immediately use his or her authority to the extent possible under existing law to provide support and recognition to gay and lesbian military families, who today are being treated as second-class citizens by our military,” Stokes said.
According to a report from the Washington Post published on Monday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, is being considered for the role of defense secretary. The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee voted against DOMA in 1996 and in recent years has been an LGBT advocate and has come out for marriage equality. Another name that has been floated is former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican.
Another departure that will be noted by the LGBT community is that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her most high-profile pro-LGBT act was speaking to the United Nations in Geneva last year against LGBT human rights abuses, telling LGBT people across the globe who feel isolated in their countries, “You have an ally in the United States of America and you have millions of friends among the American people.”
Other accomplishments include providing global benefits to LGBT employees and diplomats representing the country overseas and leading a department that has spoken against LGBT human rights abuses overseas, such as the proposed anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda. But she’s among a few high-profile Democrats who hasn’t publicly endorsed marriage equality.
The Washington Post report from Monday said Obama is considering naming Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as Clinton’s replacement. Kerry is another name that has been floated for the position.