Gay federal workers say they’re only partway to equality

November 15, 2011

The bureaucrats have been sipping white wine and dipping into the cold-cuts spread for an hour, ID cards hanging from their lanyards, when they’re summoned for a toast.

“To Frank Kameny, without whom we would not be . . . so many of us gathered here!” says the host of the recent reception at the Center for American Progress, raising her glass. The crowd of 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees of federal Washington clink theirs.

“None of us would be here if it weren’t for Frank,” Justice Department lawyer Melissa Schraibman marvels, sipping a Coke next to her partner, Mindy.

Before Stonewall, before AIDS, before “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, there was Frank Kameny. He was fired in the late ’50s from the U.S. Army Map Service because he was gay, and a few years later he led a picket line in front of the White House that made him an early hero of the gay rights movement. Since his death in Washington last month at 86, many LGBT civil servants have been taking stock of his continuing legacy.

As the Partnership for Public Service releases results Wednesday from its annual Best Places to Work survey — which ranks agencies on such key issues as support for diversity — the federal world is awash in symbols of partway progress for LGBT employees.

There are definite signs of change: More than 200 LGBT presidential appointees serve under President Obama, among them the first two who are openly transgender. Gay men and lesbians can serve openly in the armed forces. Intrusive questions about sex lives have been purged from security-clearance vettings.

But even while the first openly gay U.S. ambassador promotes his memoir of life in the closet, an American contractor in Afghanistan is blocked from a gay social-networking site.

And while the Environmental Protection Agency embraces Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, an EPA boss cancels an employee’s registration for an out-of-town conference because budget cuts would require him to share a room at the hotel with a straight co-worker.

The Obama administration refuses to stand behind the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages, but government workers can’t share their health benefits with their same-sex partners.

With 2 million people, the government is the largest employer in America and sets the tone for a lot of private companies. Its old anti-gay policies were copied by many of them. But now the government seems to be lagging behind. Industry giants, from Lockheed Martin to General Motors, have become models of same-sex partner benefits.

“The glass is a third full,” says Diego Sanchez, a transgender aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) who leads a new group for LGBT employees called the Federal Equality Council. “We need to step up the pace.”

‘A battle’ for rights

“We’ve faced a battle in terms of visibility and achieving basic rights, which we haven’t achieved under the law yet,” says Bob Gilchrest, 47, a Foreign Service officer who arrived at the State Department with a girlfriend in 1990 but came out after his first tour.

Two years later, he joined a fledgling group called Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies, created to fight gay “witch hunts” at the State Department.

GLIFAA became a rock in the vast network of advocacy groups that followed. Working abroad has particular challenges for any partnership: arranging travel to and from a post, jobs at the embassy, visas and diplomatic passports, access to free vaccinations, and evacuation in case of a security or medical emergency.

For years, these were reserved for straight couples. But when Hillary Rodham Clinton became secretary of state, she granted them one by one to same-sex couples, making her a hero to the LGBT community.

In addition to repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Obama has chipped away at one of the biggest obstacles to equality for same-sex partners: the lack of access to more than 1,100 benefits that come with marriage. LGBT civil servants can now take leave to care for sick partners and visit them in the hospital; gay couples can get relocation benefits and child-care services. Transgender federal employees are protected by anti-discrimination laws.

But LGBT employees still can’t get health insurance or survivor benefits for their partners. The Obama administration says its hands are tied: The Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, bars the government from treating same-sex relationships as marriages.

Before he was elected, Obama pledged to work to repeal the law, but with the House in the control of conservative Republicans, that’s unlikely during this Congress.

“This is the next tier of problems for us,” says Marc Salans, 47, president of DOJ Pride, whose partner is a trial lawyer at the Justice Department. They have 13-year-old twins.

“What do we do about family benefits? We are butting our heads against DOMA.”

Lingering discrimination

LGBT federal workers are also pressing for more subtle acceptance: visibility and a comfort level at the office. Out-and-out harassment may be gone. Still, Len Hirsch, a Smithsonian senior policy adviser who in 1992 founded Fed Globe to support gay men and lesbians, says he was not surprised to get a call a few months ago from the EPA employee, who has filed a grievance after his conference trip was canceled.

“He’s not a predatory person,” Hirsch said. “It’s like those terrible stories we were hearing during ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis arrived at the office in June 2009 to find that posters her staff had hung in 35 elevators in celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month had been defaced or removed. She sent an e-mail message to the entire agency denouncing the behavior.

“She acted quickly,” said Rob Sadler, Labor’s ethics chief, who is gay. “It was very important to hear that from the top.”

It’s impossible to know how many LGBT employees work for the government, since there are no comprehensive surveys. A recent poll of Justice employees by DOJ Pride revealed that just half were out — or were out to only a few co-workers.

This makes Perry Phew, 52, the chief of administrative appeals at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the founder of the LGBT group at the Department of Homeland Security, mindful of people who want to stay in the closet. “You have to be inclusive and at the same time extremely respectful,” Phew says.

For much of the next post-Kameny generation, the battle is evolving from “Can I be out?” to “How out can I be?”

Young gay men and lesbians are restless for change. Many came out in their teens. They wonder: Why are we talking about benefits when they should no-brainers?

“Many of us are used to environments where we are out and open,” says Mira Patel, 28, a political appointee at State. She says that in her first job, on the trade floor at Lehman Brothers, “there were fewer out people but better protections.”

Sanchez, who was born the year that Kameny lost his federal job, started the Federal Equality Council largely to pass the torch to younger LGBT employees. “Now we need to figure out, what are we missing in terms of what we need to achieve?” he says.

The group’s bylaws are still being drafted. But among the priorities is an “intellectual repository available to all parts of the federal government” with information about the protections offered.

“The next generation has the skills to use all of the tools,” Sanchez says.

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