June 06, 2024

LGBTQ+ Service in the Executive Branch

This week marks the beginning of Pride month, a time in which we reflect on the history and achievements of the LGBTQ+ community and reaffirm our unwavering support for equality and inclusivity. The Partnership for Public Service and Center for Presidential Transition honor the service of countless LGBTQ+ public servants who have served across administrations.

The service of LGBTQ+ individuals in the federal government has not always been celebrated. Beginning in the late 1940s, in the midst of the Cold War, there was a “Lavendar Scare” that focused on purging the federal civil service, along with government contractors, of gays and lesbians. President Dwight Eisenhower formalized the policy in April of 1953 with Executive Order 10450 which authorized the investigation and firing of civil servants for “sexual perversion.” Due to this policy, tens of thousands of civil servants were investigated and thousands lost their careers.

The policy of targeting gay and lesbian civil servants continued for decades. It was not until 1975 that the Civil Service Commission ended the ban on gays and lesbians in the federal civil service and 1977 that the Department of State ended its ban within the Foreign Service. It took another two decades until discrimination based on sexual orientation was banned in granting access to classified information, when President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12968 in 1995.

Even as formal constraints on the service of LGBTQ+ individuals were removed over time, LGBTQ+ individuals continued to face opposition because of their identities. Roberta Achtenberg, the first openly LGBTQ+ Senate-confirmed appointee who won approval in 1993, and James Hormel, the first openly LGBTQ+ ambassador who took office through a recess appointment in 1999, faced questions about their ability to serve based on their identities alone.

Despite obstacles, openly LGBTQ+ individuals have served in appointed leadership roles in each of the last five administrations. Clinton led the way by making the first nominations of openly LGBT individuals, appointing about 140 to serve in his administration. President Barack Obama nearly doubled that number, appointing over 250 openly LGBTQ+ officials during his administration.

Milestones of LGBTQ+ Service and Leadership in the Federal Government

  • 1977: Jean O’Leary is appointed by President Jimmy Carter, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ appointee to a presidential commission.
  • 1993: Roberta Achtenberg is appointed by Clinton and confirmed by the Senate, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ Senate-confirmed appointee.
  • 1999: James Hormel assumes the duties of ambassador to Luxembourg through a recess appointment, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ ambassador. Hormel’s 1997 nomination by Clinton had been blocked in the Senate.
  • 2001: Michael Guest is appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ Senate-confirmed ambassador.
  • 2009: John Berry is appointed by Obama and confirmed by the Senate as director of the Office of Personnel Management, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ Senate-confirmed head of a federal agency.
  • 2009: Amanda Simpson is appointed by Obama as a Commerce Department technical adviser, becoming the first openly transgender presidential appointee.
  • 2015: Eric Fanning is appointed by Obama and confirmed by the Senate to be
  • secretary of the Army, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ head of a military service branch.
  • 2015: Raffi Freedman-Gurspan is appointed by Obama, becoming the first openly transgender person to work in the White House.
  • 2020: Richard Grennell is selected by President Donald Trump to serve as the acting director of National Intelligence, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ Cabinet member.
  • 2021: Pete Buttigieg is appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate, becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ Senate-confirmed Cabinet member.
  • 2021: Rachel Levine is appointed by Biden and confirmed by the Senate, becoming the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed appointee.

Biden has appointed more openly LGBTQ+ officials than any of his predecessors. As of October of 2023, Biden had appointed over 340 openly LGBTQ+ officials across the executive branch. Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which works to advance LGBTQ+ elected and appointed government officials, described the Biden administration as “the most LGBTQ-inclusive in history…”

Our government is best when it is representative of its people and inclusive to all. Despite discrimination and bigotry, LGBTQ+ individuals have always strived to serve their government and country. Thanks to social and legal progress over time, the government benefits more than ever from the leadership of LGBTQ+ officials.

Chris Piper