To the 70 gay donors gathered for cocktails and crab balls at a six-bedroom compound in Rehoboth Beach, Del., this summer, the campaign fundraiser for President Obama was headlined by . . . no one familiar.
John Berry — a Washington bureaucrat who runs an obscure agency in charge of federal workers — showed up in khakis and a striped dress shirt and started to work the crowd, which paid up to $2,500 each to be there.
“He’s not somebody you would pick out of a crowd as being a gay activist,” recalled Steve Elkins, a local advocate for LGBT issues.
And that’s just what makes the director of the Office of Personnel Management an asset to the Obama campaign, even if, at times, Berry has struck some activists as too ready to compromise.
On that summer evening, the unassuming but effervescent bureaucrat gave a passionate recitation of the president’s record on gay rights and a pledge that a second term would bring full equality. And threaded through those remarks was Berry’s personal story. It’s a tale of humanity that has resonated so widely that he’s become a quiet figurehead, not so much fighting a full-throated battle for gay rights as embodying a philosophical shift: Gay relationships, Berry suggests with his presence, are normal, humane, right. An openly gay man can run a federal agency. He’s accepted by conservative veterans.
Berry told the donors in Rehoboth how he made the risky decision at 25 to come out to his devout Catholic parents, his terror that they and God would reject him, his Marine father’s painful decision to ban Berry’s partner from the family’s Rockville home for Sunday dinners. And redemption: When the partner, Tom, was dying of AIDS in 1996, the elder Berry held him in his arms and told him he loved him as a son.
“I heard a cheerleader,” Elkins said after the fundraiser, which reeled in $30,000. “John’s a great ambassador.”
The political and personal have always been intertwined for Berry, 53, a career public servant who became, with Obama’s election, the highest-ranking openly gay federal official in history. But no more so than now as he takes on a new role helping reelect the president.
“We’re going to use the heck out of John,” said Brian Bond, a former White House adviser who is leading campaign outreach. “He has the kind of message you would want out there, amplifying the president’s message on many fronts.”
Officially, Berry oversees federal human resource policy, a job that includes reforming an infamously belabored hiring system, deciding whether to shut down the government when it snows and making government work “cool again.”
Unofficially, he’s the White House’s secret weapon in the fight to make being gay as acceptable as being straight — and not just in Barney Frank’s district.
“The president asked me to wear two hats,” Berry recalled of the marching orders Obama gave him in 2009. “Lead HR for the government and be the highest-ranking gay official.”
He toggles between those worlds, guiding HR managers in new ways to measure whether federal workers are doing a good job one month, keynoting for the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Denver fundraiser another month.
His background is proof, Berry said, “that gays don’t need to be stereotyped. We don’t need to be hairdressers.” And he’s proud that his portfolio includes speaking to straight audiences about being gay. “The administration has encouraged me to do that.”
In a career that led him from legislative work on Capitol Hill to turning around the National Zoo (who else can brag that an adorable lion cub is named for him?), Berry has been openly gay in a risk-averse federal culture that still denies health benefits to partners of gay employees.
He has a reputation for owning up to missteps, for example publicly acknowledging management failures after a costly overhaul of the federal jobs board repeatedly crashed last fall and taking a drubbing on Capitol Hill.
Berry is a family man who’s engaged to his partner of 16 years, loves history (he just finished a biography of Ulysses S. Grant), walks his wheaten terrier, Hapa, in Dupont Circle every morning and looks and acts like Richie Cunningham. An aw-shucks guy who ends every speech with “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”
“To tell you the truth, we’re kind of boring,” Berry said with a laugh, describing life with Curtis Yee, a retired lawyer now in real estate. “He knows nothing about public service. I know nothing about business.”
All of which makes Berry a safe surrogate to send into mainstream America on the heels of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the passage of hate-crimes legislation and the biggest victory for gays since Obama took office — his embrace in May of same-sex marriage.
“You meet John and you say, ‘This is an extraordinary person who is not hard-edged at all, and he happens to be gay,’ ” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who hired Berry as a legislative aide in the late 1980s.
Berry has never been an in-your-face activist like his hero, the late Frank Kameny, who was fired from the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 for being gay and who led a picket line in front of the White House. (One of Berry’s proudest moments as personnel chief, though, was giving Kameny a formal letter of apology from the government in front of 300 supporters.)
Berry has taken some fire as a result, particularly from politically engaged gays pressing for the next victory.
“He looks like the kid next door, so he’s safe,” said Paul Yandura, an adviser to gay Democratic donor Jonathan Lewis. But he also tends to fit into the background like the boy next door: “You have to explain who John Berry is to most gay people.”
Berry acknowledges the weight of his history-making role.
“Anybody who is a first, they’ve got to do a good job,” he said. “You’re going against stereotypes, you’re going against prejudice. You have to cut your grass twice as often as the rest of us for people to think your lawn is the same.”
To gay audiences, he lists progress under Obama, which includes expanded benefits for partners of same-sex federal employees — an effort Berry spearheaded. But he also holds out another hope as a leading contender for a history-making appointment as the first openly gay Cabinet secretary in a second Obama term.
“When you think about it, John is everything that people think about straight people,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who is openly gay. “People think symbolic stuff doesn’t matter. This does matter.”
It would be a big step to the Interior Department from the backwater of OPM, and Berry will say only that he would be “honored to serve the president in any capacity.” Friends say he is seeking to lead Interior, where he served as an assistant secretary in the Clinton administration.
For activists always pressing to maintain momentum, his being on the inside can get sticky.
Speaking in July to gay Latinos gathered in Las Vegas, Berry chose his words carefully, promising that the president still is committed to crossing the next big hurdle to gay equality: workplace discrimination.
“We have not taken it off the table,” he assured activists at the National Council of La Raza’s annual convention. But he would not commit to a date when Obama would sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors, leaving impatient activists to wonder if the White House is serious about the pledge Obama made during his first presidential campaign.
Weeks before, Berry had told activists the president would not sign the executive order until after the November election.
“He defended the decision,” said Tico Almeida, president of the LGBT group Freedom to Work, who was at the White House when the activists learned the news. “It shows the tension and challenge of being on the inside of an administration.”
This dual role has left some activists wondering whether Berry is their best representative. The same skepticism came up over the Defense of Marriage Act, which the administration initially defended. Berry had to fall in line.
“We deserve a representative that can actually do something for us once they return to the White House,” David Badash wrote on the New Civil Rights Movement site in June 2009, expressing his disappointment with Berry’s acceptance of the Obama administration’s stance on DOMA.
Until the White House stopped defending the law in court last year, Berry found himself in the uncomfortable role of defending the government’s denial of benefits to same-sex partners in several lawsuits brought by gay federal employees.
Berry and those close to him say he has had a voice on every major gay-rights issue. But neither Berry nor other administration officials would elaborate, saying his conversations with the president are private.
“He tells people what we’ve already done,” Yandura said, “as opposed to advocating for what we need to do.”
But Berry’s willingness to quietly advocate works in other settings. On a whirlwind commencement-speech circuit in the spring to pitch a revamped internship program for recent graduates, Berry shared his coming-out story to audiences from as far apart politically as the liberal University of Maryland in College Park and the University of California at Fullerton in conservative Orange County.
In the half-white, half-black crowd at conservative Georgia State, Berry did not inspire a lovefest. “It threw us,” recalled Cedric Baker, a graduate and youth pastor who opposes gay marriage. As soon as Berry got personal, Baker looked around the auditorium, he said, “to see if anybody was going to make a comment.” Some catcalls and hoots rang out.
By the end, though, Berry and his personal story had won the students over.
“It was actually a great speech,” Baker said.“Even though it caught me off-guard, it made me understand how things have changed, and you can be what you want to be.”