The Long Road of Redemption for One Gay Public Servant

How the experience has changed over the past half-century.

US President Barack Obama signs a presidential memorandum regarding federal benefits and non-discrimination June 17, 2009 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. Obama is extending some federal benefits to same-sex partners of US government workers, in a nod to gay and lesbian groups becoming critical of his administration. Looking on at rear are Vice President Joe Biden (3rd L), Rep Barney Frank (4th L), D-MA, and Senator Joe Lieberman (3rd R), I-CT, Rep Tammy Baldwin (2nd R, D-WI, and gay rights activist Frank Kameny (R). 
2009 AFP
Timothy Naftali and James Kirchick
Jan. 23, 2014, 4 p.m.

One of John Berry’s proudest mo­ments in a life­time of gov­ern­ment ser­vice in­volved a very pub­lic apo­logy.

On June 24, 2009, Berry, then the dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment, stood on a stage along­side first lady Michelle Obama be­fore a packed aud­it­or­i­um. With them was Frank Ka­meny, a World War II com­bat vet­er­an with a doc­tor­ate from Har­vard who, in 1957, had been fired from his job as an as­tro­nomer with the Army Map Ser­vice. Like thou­sands of oth­er men and wo­men, Ka­meny had been dis­missed from his po­s­i­tion be­cause he was gay. “Ho­mo­sexu­als or sexu­al per­verts are not suit­able for Fed­er­al em­ploy­ment,” John Macy, one of Berry’s pre­de­cessors at OPM (then known as the Civil Ser­vice Com­mis­sion), wrote to Ka­meny.

Un­like the many oth­ers who lost their jobs un­der sim­il­ar cir­cum­stances, however, Ka­meny chal­lenged his ter­min­a­tion. He took his case all the way to the Su­preme Court, mak­ing the first civil-rights claim to be based on sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion. In 1961, the Court re­fused to hear it.

More than half a cen­tury later, Berry was the highest-rank­ing openly gay per­son in the fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy, and was the head of the agency that had once worked with the FBI and the D.C. vice squad to root out ho­mo­sexu­als from pub­lic ser­vice. Berry’s re­spons­ib­il­it­ies in­cluded everything from de­cid­ing when to de­clare a snow emer­gency for gov­ern­ment work­ers to stream­lin­ing the pro­cess for is­su­ing se­cur­ity clear­ances — once denied to gay people — across dozens of agen­cies. And one of his first acts was to is­sue a form­al apo­logy on be­half of the U.S. gov­ern­ment to the man whom Berry de­scribes as “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT move­ment.”

“OPM’s core, abid­ing prin­ciple is mer­it,” Berry says from Can­berra, Aus­tralia, where he is cur­rently serving as the Amer­ic­an am­bas­sad­or. “The prin­ciple which holds that in Amer­ica you should be judged only by the con­tent of how you do your job and noth­ing else. And Frank Ka­meny’s 50-year fight was a fight to de­fend that prin­ciple, and he was proven right.”

That fight would turn out to be filled with firsts. After find­ing him­self es­sen­tially black­lis­ted by the gov­ern­ment for which he had risked his life over­seas, Ka­meny threw him­self in­to gay-rights act­iv­ism. In 1961, he cofoun­ded the Mat­tachine So­ci­ety of Wash­ing­ton, one of the coun­try’s earli­est gay-rights or­gan­iz­a­tions. He or­gan­ized the coun­try’s first gay-rights protest, held out­side the White House, four years later. He was the first openly gay per­son to run for Con­gress (as a can­did­ate for the del­eg­ate from the Dis­trict of Columbia) in 1971. And Ka­meny led the suc­cess­ful ef­fort to get the Amer­ic­an Psy­chi­at­ric As­so­ci­ation to de­clas­si­fy ho­mo­sexu­al­ity as a men­tal dis­order in 1973. Ka­meny died in 2011, and his house, in the Pal­is­ades neigh­bor­hood of D.C., is now lis­ted in the Na­tion­al Re­gister of His­tor­ic Places.

“My ca­reer, and [those of] hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­er LGBT in­di­vidu­als in our fed­er­al ser­vice, would nev­er have been pos­sible without his cour­age,” Berry says.

But Ka­meny’s and Berry’s ex­per­i­ences in Wash­ing­ton are less now-and-then coun­ter­parts than they are over­lap­ping chapters in the lar­ger story of what it has meant to be gay in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment over the past five-plus dec­ades.

When Berry came to the cap­it­al in 1985, ho­mo­sexu­al­ity was still con­sidered a ta­boo sub­ject, and it could still be used to deny people jobs in the CIA, the FBI, the State De­part­ment, and the mil­it­ary. “[Wash­ing­ton] was a pretty closeted en­vir­on­ment,” Berry re­calls of the city he en­countered back then. He was very for­tu­nate, he says, to find a ment­or in Demo­crat­ic Rep. Steny Hoy­er, a man whom Berry today con­siders a “second fath­er,” and in whose of­fice he star­ted as an aide.

Berry re­counts that Hoy­er was the first per­son to con­tact him after his first part­ner, Tom Leisch­man, died of AIDS in 1996. Leisch­man passed away overnight, and at 5:30 the next morn­ing, while driv­ing to Wash­ing­ton from his dis­trict in south­ern Mary­land, Hoy­er called Berry. “It was not un­til that point that it hit home what had happened,” Berry says. “I had what you could only de­scribe as a break­down. I just star­ted cry­ing.”

“Hold on a second,” Hoy­er told him, be­fore pro­ceed­ing to pull off the high­way and com­fort Berry over the phone for the next 30 minutes. “When someone does that for you, and you’re in that place in your life,” Berry ob­serves, “you know you’ve got a friend that you would throw your­self in front of a bus for if need be.”

In ad­di­tion to a sup­port­ive boss, Berry found something else Ka­meny could hardly have dreamed of dur­ing his days as a fed­er­al em­ploy­ee: what Berry de­scribes as “an amaz­ing net­work of people who were openly gay” on both sides of the aisle. He names Steve El­men­d­orf (a former seni­or ad­viser to Dick Geph­ardt who is now one of Wash­ing­ton’s most high-powered lob­by­ists) and Jeff Trandahl (a con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­an aide who even­tu­ally be­came House clerk) as par­tic­u­larly close friends and col­leagues. “We have worked to­geth­er in vari­ous ca­pa­cit­ies over 30 years, and I’d trust each of those guys with my life; we’ve been in the fox­holes to­geth­er, and they have been lead­ers in their own way.”

There was still, however, plenty of ground left for Berry to break. In 1994, he ac­cep­ted a job as an as­sist­ant deputy sec­ret­ary in the Treas­ury De­part­ment, a po­s­i­tion that re­quired a top-level se­cur­ity clear­ance. It would not be un­til the fol­low­ing year, however, that Pres­id­ent Clin­ton would sign an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der bar­ring the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment from deny­ing clear­ances on the basis of sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion, and when FBI agents came to in­ter­view Berry at his Cap­it­ol Hill home, Leisch­man joined him. The agents “were be­ing very un­com­fort­able dur­ing the in­ter­view,” Berry says, and he asked them why they were so tense. “You don’t un­der­stand. This is the first time we’ve ever done this,” one of the agents told Berry, who now laughs about the en­counter. “This is the first time we’ve ever in­ter­viewed someone at this level who has been as open as you about this and an­swer­ing our ques­tions so hon­estly. We’re just hav­ing to learn as we go here.” (Berry got the clear­ance.)

In 1997, after a two-year stint at the Smith­so­ni­an In­sti­tu­tion, Berry sailed through his con­firm­a­tion pro­cess to be­come an as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary in the In­teri­or De­part­ment, and the first openly gay per­son to be con­firmed by a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Sen­ate. (That same year, though, the Sen­ate blocked Clin­ton’s ap­point­ment of gay phil­an­throp­ist Jim Hormel as am­bas­sad­or to Lux­em­bourg; Clin­ton in­stalled Hormel through a re­cess ap­point­ment two years later.)

Non­ethe­less, Berry says he was sur­prised when Pres­id­ent Obama called him per­son­ally in 2009 to ask if he would leave his job as dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Zoo to head OPM. Berry, who had led the zoo since 2005, loved the job (a li­on cub was later named in his hon­or) and had little de­sire to leave. Yet, he says, he ima­gined that his fath­er, a former Mar­ine who had re­cently died, “would have ris­en from the dead and kicked my rear end around the house” if he said no to the pres­id­ent of the United States.

In his role as the na­tion’s top civil ser­vant, Berry had a very con­crete op­por­tun­ity to ad­vance the cam­paign for LGBT civil rights star­ted by Ka­meny in 1961. In 2009, he was charged with help­ing to im­ple­ment the ex­ten­sion of fed­er­al be­ne­fits to part­ners of For­eign Ser­vice and ex­ec­ut­ive-branch per­son­nel.

The two men were both at the White House when Obama signed the or­der, and Ka­meny led Berry to the Oval Of­fice win­dow that looked out at the fence where, in 1965, Ka­meny had led his first protest. “I wasn’t sure any­body was go­ing to come,” Berry says Ka­meny told him, “and, thank God, 15 people had the cour­age to come up, and that gave me the cour­age to keep go­ing. I nev­er dreamed I’d be stand­ing here on the oth­er side of this wall with the pres­id­ent of the United States.” Ka­meny’s words, and the struggle they evoked, brought Berry to tears, he re­calls. 

And now, un­ex­pec­tedly, Berry’s ac­cept­ance of a plum dip­lo­mat­ic post­ing in Aus­tralia is of­fer­ing him a chance to be a quiet role mod­el for an LGBT com­munity in a dif­fer­ent cap­it­al city. In Oc­to­ber, shortly after Berry ar­rived Down Un­der, the par­lia­ment of the Aus­trali­an Cap­it­al Ter­rit­ory (akin to the Dis­trict of Columbia) passed le­gis­la­tion al­low­ing gay mar­riage. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, led by the con­ser­vat­ive Lib­er­al Party, chal­lenged the law, which was struck down in Decem­ber by the coun­try’s High Court. Berry treads care­fully when dis­cuss­ing the top­ic, say­ing he is open about his re­la­tion­ship with part­ner, Curtis Yee (whom he mar­ried in Au­gust, right be­fore mov­ing to Aus­tralia), yet hes­it­ant to get drawn in­to his host coun­try’s do­mest­ic polit­ic­al de­bate. “I have my wed­ding ring on “¦ [and] I am very happy to talk about the his­tory of this is­sue in the U.S.,” he says. But “this is an is­sue that Aus­trali­ans need to de­cide for Aus­trali­ans.” 

James Kirchick, a fel­low with the For­eign Policy Ini­ti­at­ive, is a con­trib­ut­or to The Daily Beast and a colum­nist for the New York Daily News. Timothy Naf­tali, a his­tor­i­an and former dir­ect­or of the Richard Nix­on Pres­id­en­tial Lib­rary and Mu­seum, is dir­ect­or of the Tami­ment Lib­rary and Robert F. Wag­n­er Labor Archives at New York Uni­versity. They are writ­ing a his­tory of gay Wash­ing­ton.

×