By Karen Ocamb -
Concern over heated political rhetoric is much in the news since the assassination attempt against Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But not that long ago hate speech against LGBT people in the corridors of Congress was unabashedly acceptable.
One recipient of public antigay hate speech was Roberta Achtenberg, the longtime lesbian attorney, co-founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and San Francisco Supervisor who President Clinton nominated in 1993 to be assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). California Sen. Barbara Boxer, herself a target of anti-liberal bashing, ushered Achtenberg through the ultimately successful but intensely grueling confirmation process.
On Wednesday, Jan. 27, President Obama appointed Achtenberg to the US Commission on Civil Rights with barely a mention from the mainstream press and plaudits from the LGBT media. Achtenberg was one of three LGBT appointments and nominations announced by the White House yesterday. The Victory Fund notes that the Obama administration now has made 159 appointments in the president’s first two years in office, compared to about 140 during Clinton’s two terms in office.
The difference in the reception towards LGBT appointees between 1993 and 2011 is remarkable.
That is not to say that hate groups such as the Family Research Council and Townhall.com columnists such as Alan Sears aren’t still rankled that LGBT people like Chai Feldblum, Obama’s recess appointee to the Equal Opportunity Commission, are elevated to positions of power, arguing that gays will try to impose the “homosexual agenda” on democracy, which Sears sees as a threat to American liberty. But while the culture war rhetoric over abortion rights has seriously ticked up, mainstream antigay hate speech seems to have become more marginalized – even Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was criticized during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debate for suggesting that allowing open service by gays would cause military deaths.
But in 1993, even the idea of Boxer and Achtenberg together was anathema to the coddled hyper-antigay late North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. During her 1992 senate campaign, Boxer, who is 4-foot-11 inches tall, would joke about standing up to the 6 foot tall Helms. And asked by The Washington Times why he wouldn’t vote for Achtenberg, Helms snapped, “Because she’s a damn lesbian.” Later Helms added that she was “a militant, activist, mean lesbian.”
Helms and fellow Republican Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott organized a campaign of hate against Achtenberg – not just her confirmation – but Achtenberg as a person, dragging her then-partner Judge Mary Morgan and their child into the public fight. Interestingly, Republican Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas expressed concern that Helms’ rhetoric would paint the GOP as the party of intolerance – though Dole, even then the presumptive GOP presidential nominee in 1996, made no effort to temper other harbingers of hate such as California Reps. Bill Dannemeyer and Bob Dornan who joined the chorus of religious hate mongers such as Rev. Jerry Falwell in saying AIDS was God’s “punishment” for homosexuality.
For two days, Achtenberg endured ugly debate in the media and on the Senate floor. Her confirmation was considered a test: though mostly closeted gays virtually ran the Capitol behind the scenes and Clinton elevated gay visibility during an excruciatingly dark and deadly time, many LGBTs questioned whether they would want to put themselves through that process just as the still relatively new national Victory Fund was encouraging LGBTs to run as political candidates.
“I am not going to put a lesbian into a position like that,” Helms said. Other conservatives attacked Achtenberg for her work as San Francisco Supervisor in denying funding to the United Way because they supported the explicitly antigay Boy Scouts. “We’re not talking about some youth gang, the Bloods and the Crips,” Dole said. “We’re talking about the Boy Scouts!”
“Ms. Achtenberg is worse than intolerant,” said Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. “By using her position to attack the Boy Scouts, she brought the power of government to bear against a private association because that private association does not mirror her beliefs about what is good and true and just.”
Boxer was almost beside herself: “It’s not about qualifications, it’s about a private life style,” Boxer said. “I say America is better than that.”
”Call it gay-bashing if you want to. I don’t call it that. I call it standing up for America’s traditional family values,” an emotional Helms said on the Senate floor.
”We are crossing the threshold into the first time in the history of America that a homosexual or a lesbian has been nominated by a president of the United States to a top job in the U.S. government.”
On May 24, 1993, the Senate approved Achtenberg’s confirmation on a 58-31 vote, with five Southern Democrats joining the 26 Republicans. However, 13 Republicans joined the 45 Democrats in voting yes. One of those Democrats was Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sam Nunn of Georgia, the man most responsible for scuttling Clinton’s effort to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military and the subsequent “compromise” of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell was seen whispering to Nunn before the vote.
“Roberta Achtenberg has broken down a wall and made it possible for future nominees to be judged on the merits” instead of prejudice, Gregory King, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, told the Los Angeles Times. HRCF and the gay community contributed at least $3 million to Clinton’s election campaign, which Helms claimed was extortion for the nomination.
“No doubt we should show tolerance and respect for those among us who are gay,” said Dole, who voted against Achtenberg. “But showing tolerance and respect should not force us to embrace an ideological agenda most Americans do not accept.”
“The real issue,” California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the LA Times, is whether “the United States Senate should vote down a nomination without regard to a candidate’s overwhelming qualifications simply because she is gay.”
Two months later, Boxer told National Women’s Political Caucus that the confirmation experience was “as ugly as it gets on the floor of the United States Senate. . . . You could feel the politics of hate and fear and divisiveness.” Boxer wagged her finger, imitating Helms who warned, “this vote will be remembered.” Boxer said, “It will be remembered, because we stood up. We stood up–and we won!”
Achtenberg served for two years before leaving for an unsuccessful run for San Francisco mayor. While at HUD, she made some improvements for LGBTs but she was ultimately unable to end housing discrimination against LGBTs.
“The major goal of the Fair Housing Enforcement Effort at HUD was to re-invigorate a bureaucracy that had been so depleted and demoralized because of 20 years of a lack of civil rights enforcement of any kind. My job was a very different job,” she told the San Francisco Weekly in 2009. Additionally, the George W. Bush Administration “willfully” did a lot of damage to the HUD’s civil rights enforcement. “They essentially eviscerated the fair housing enforcement division. As people retired they didn’t fill jobs. They froze appropriations at the 1990 levels — and didn’t even ask Congress for increased amounts of money despite increased prevalence of racial and ethnic-based housing discrimination. They didn’t pursue one fair-lending case related to the subprime mortage debaucle.”
But “times have changed,” she said. “I do think the Obama administration might indeed be amenable to issuing an executive order to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in federally financed housing.”
Last Thursday, Jan. 20, HUD proposed new regulations that finally prohibit LGBT discrimination in housing. Additionally, HUD is conducting the first-ever national study of discrimination against LGBTs in the rental and sale of housing.
“This is a fundamental issue of fairness,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a press release. “We have a responsibility to make certain that public programs are open to all Americans. With this proposed rule, we will make clear that a person’s eligibility for federal housing programs is, and should be, based on their need and not on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Victory Fund’s Gay Politics blog reports that the Civil Rights Commission is an 8-member, independent federal body “that investigates, reports on and makes recommendations concerning civil rights issues. Achtenberg, who was an early advisor to the LGBT community’s ongoing Presidential Appointments Project, is believed to be the first openly LGBT commissioner appointed to the panel. She also currently serves on the board of trustees for the California State University.”
Achtenberg’s appointment is significant for several reasons, not the least of which because she is once again an LGBT “first” on the Civil Rights Commission. She is a person who knows first hand what antigay hatred feels like, regardless of one’s station in life. Surely she will handle this appointment as more than an intellectual exercise.
Achtenberg’s appointment also shows the clear, unrelenting through-line in antigay political attitudes – some of the same rhetoric is being used today, against the backdrop of a change in public opinion about LGBT equality.
But perhaps most importantly, Achtenberg and this appointment profoundly illustrate that it does get better – that merit can triumph over ignorant bias. And, for those of us too afraid to leave a hard-won job to pursue a dream – only to fade from public view if the dream doesn’t come true – Achtenberg’s return to the federal stage goes to show that significant second acts are possible in a lifetime of service.
Please check out longtime reporter Lisa Keen and the Gay City News stories on the other two LGBT announcements – onetime AIDS expert Jeff Levi, who was appointed to the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health, and J. Paul Oetken, nominee for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. MetroWeekly has a good piece on Oetken with reaction.