Equality: Coming Soon to a Federal Employee Near You


Alyssa Rosenberg clues us in on an unheralded major development-in-the-making for equal rights for gays and lesbians. It all starts in the National Zoo:

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.

To extend equality in domestic partnership benefits would actually require legislative change. Here, though, OPM switching sides from the Bush administration’s opposition will make a difference as well, of course, the election results. But beyond that specific issue, there are going to be countless small ways in which having OPM be on the side of equality will make a difference for the federal civilian workforce. And since that workforce is enormous it’s both a big deal for a large number of people and also something that to an extent helps set standards and expectations for a larger swathe of the economy.