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Obama's New Gay Rights Crusader

Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff correspondent at Government Executive and a regular contributor to National Journal.

President Obama has just made John Berry, the current director of the National Zoo, the highest-ranking openly gay appointee ever by tapping him to head the Office of Personnel Management (pending Congressional approval). As an assistant secretary at the Interior department under President Clinton, Berry fought to end a wide range of discriminatory policies, including background checks for gay and lesbian applicants for National Park Service law enforcement jobs, and worked to set up a grievance process for employees who were harassed because of their sexual orientation.

The Office of Personnel Management might not seem like a bully pulpit for a gay rights advocate like Berry. But, unlike workers at more than half of the Fortune 500 companies, the 1.8 million employees who fill the ranks of the federal government don't have domestic partnership benefits. Their partners can't participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, a plan that's been considered a potential model for health care reform. They can't benefit from retirement programs. And if gay federal employees move for work, their partners can't benefit from relocation programs.

Under President Bush, the Office of Personnel Management opposed Congressional efforts, led by Senator Joe Lieberman, to expand domestic partnership benefits to federal employees. Former deputy director Howard Weizmann even cited the 2007 Adam Sandler comedy, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, about two straight firefighters who pretend to be a gay couple to protect their pension benefits, as proof that gay federal employees might commit fraud to get partner benefits.

Berry can't make Congress act, but he could reverse OPM's opposition, removing a major hurdle to the bill's passage. It also helps that Berry is widely considered a management whiz. At Interior, he held town hall meetings for employees, and kicked off a range of popular work-life balance initiatives. He reorganized the National Zoo's management structure and put it on a more solid financial footing.

Berry has political savvy and allies, too. He was Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's legislative director for ten years, during which time he advised Hoyer on federal employee policy issues and played a key role in passing the legislation that underpins the federal pay system as it exists today. Hoyer, who confirmed his support for Berry today, could be an important ally for Berry on this issue, especially since Lieberman's bill to give federal employees domestic partner benefits died a quiet death in committee last year.

Berry's appointment may also be consolation for gay rights advocates who objected to Rick Warren's presence at Obama's inauguration and who are trying to be patient as the administration waits to take up issues like the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese praised Berry when rumors of his nomination first circulated in January. "The selection of John Berry to head the Office of Personnel Management is a meaningful step forward for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community," Solomonese said.  "In his new role, John will make critical decisions regarding the implementation of fair workplace policies for millions of federal workers."

--Alyssa Rosenberg