The Long Road of Redemption for One Gay Public Servant

23rd Jan 2014

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.”

co-authored with Timothy Naftali

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