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Is the Government Gay-Friendly?

Is the Government Gay-Friendly?

Dan Woog /

From the 1930s through the end of World War II, Washington, DC, was a great place for gays and lesbians to work. The federal government was growing, and the city was tolerant. But during the McCarthy era, hundreds of gays and lesbians were arrested as supposed national security threats; thousands of others lost their jobs.

The tide turned again in the 1960s, and in 1975 the Civil Service Commission formally reversed its discriminatory hiring policy against gays and lesbians. In 1995, President Clinton issued an executive order forbidding the US government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation in granting security clearances. Three years later, he banned anti-gay discrimination against all federal civilian employees.

Though today the government is a far better employer of gays and lesbians than it was 20 years ago, advocates say that in recent years not enough improvements in employer practice have been made.

Halt to Progress?

There’s been little progress – and even some backsliding – since Clinton left office. That’s the opinion of Leonard Hirsch, president of Federal GLOBE, an umbrella organization of at least 4,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender US government employees.

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Federal GLOBE – formed in the final year of George H. W. Bush’s presidency – was very active during the Clinton years, Hirsch says. Although under George W. Bush, Federal GLOBE is “just trying to maintain the status quo,” says Hirsch.

“There is no longer the type or level of harassment that occurred years ago,” Hirsch says. “But when it comes to benefits, government is different than the private sector. In many ways, it has not kept pace.”

For example, same-sex partners of federal employees are not eligible for health and most retirement benefits. Congressional approval is necessary for change, and Hirsch says that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – passed in 1996 and signed by Clinton – remains an “execrable constraint.”

Though DOMA instructs the federal government to apply the words “marriage” and “spouse” only to a legal union of a man and woman, Hirsch calls little-noticed Article 2 the most discriminatory part of the law. It prohibits domestic partners from receiving any benefits.

Hirsch also says that Bush’s two Attorneys General have been “hostile” to gays and lesbians. The result is that at the Department of Justice (DOJ), and other organizations with like-minded bosses, there has been “a real chilling of workplace activity. People are concerned that being open and out will have a deleterious effect on their careers, in terms of promotions and work assignments.” At places like the DOJ, Hirsch says, “people seem less out than in previous administrations.”

But Log Cabin Republicans president Patrick Sammon counters: “President Bush should be applauded for appointing gays and lesbians to his administration. We also believe the president has done the right thing by leaving intact President Clinton’s executive order banning discrimination in the federal workplace on the basis of sexual orientation. We do, however, have concerns about this administration’s commitment to basic fairness, given the dismal record of special counsel Scott Bloch, who is tasked with ensuring this important ban on discrimination is actually enforced.”

Some Agencies Score Better Than Others 

Still, even Hirsch is not entirely critical of the current Bush administration’s record. He calls the administration “not welcoming, but not overtly hostile” to gays and lesbians. Policy implementation, he notes, is left up to department and agency heads. As a result, some, like the chiefs of the Agriculture and Transportation Departments, the Environmental Protection Agency and Peace Corps, have been “generally supportive.” As a result, Hirsch says, events like Gay History Month and Gay Pride have been encouraged.

Michael Learned, group leader of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Returned Peace Corps Volunteers also calls the Peace Corps “very gay-friendly.” He notes that openly gay directors are placed in countries where homosexuality is not illegal; that most of the Peace Corps’s 11 regional offices sponsor recruiting tables at gay events, and that although the current director, Gaddi Vasquez, is a “born again Christian Mexican-American,” he declares every June “Gay Pride Month” at the Peace Corps.

Pushing for Progress

To ensure continued progress in government, Federal GLOBE now concentrates on several areas, Hirsch says. One is ensuring that the government workplace is free from harassment and discrimination. “We’ve seen pretty good success there,” he says.

A second area is “making the workplace welcoming through good and consistent policies.” For example, Hirsch said, while many antiharassment programs put in place under Clinton still exist, their sexual orientation elements are often ignored.

Because of the lack of domestic partner benefits, Hirsch advises gays and lesbians seeking government employment to be sure their partners have their own insurance. Equally importantly, he says, “don’t lie on your application about being gay or the gay-related activities you’ve done. You don’t have to include everything, but more people are caught for hiding or lying than anything else.”

Despite those caveats, he endorses government work. “Public service is important,” Hirsch says. “You should be proud of working for the government.”

What do you think? Sound off… Join the discussion.

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