Direct Line to the President: The White House Responds to Activists' Criticisms with a New Wave of Openly Gay Appointments

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When veteran lesbian activist Virginia Apuzzo was named a senior White House aide, she gained the coveted seat at the table that President Clinton had long promised.

"There is no question we have to keep striving for more diverse representation around a table where decisions affecting our lives are being made," says Apuzzo, who was assistant to former New York governor Mario Cuomo and has been a gay activist for decades. "At the same time we should never lose sight of the fact that we are putting together a critical mass at the center of power, where there have never been openly gay people."

Apuzzo, who became the highest-ranking openly gay official ever to serve in the White House, was among a handful of appointments of gay men and lesbians announced in late September and early October. Among them were John Berry, a former Senate staff member who was named assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the Department of Interior; and Brace Lehman, assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce and commissioner of patents and trademarks, who became interim director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Clinton also nominated James Hormel, a gay San Francisco businessman and wealthy Democratic Party donor, to become ambassador to the tiny European nation of Luxembourg. With confirmation, he becomes the United States' first openly gay envoy.

In her new post Apuzzo is one of 18 top assistants with direct access to the president. Yet with critics of the Administration's performance on gay-related issues clamoring for more senior-level appointments, a single seat at the president's table may not be enough.

"I still don't believe we have gotten what we deserve," says Andrew Barrer, a gay philanthropist and activist who was a senior adviser in the White House AIDS Policy Office early in the Clinton administration. "Everyone knows that gay people made a significant difference -- maybe the difference -- in winning both elections for Clinton. We should be everywhere in this administration."

But Rep. Barney Frank says that while some discontent lingers, behind-the-scenes lobbying is paying off. "Threats have been made, and the With House has moved just fast enough that we have not had to carry them out," he says. "No one should minimize the importance of Apuzzo's appointment."

Openly gay and lesbian individuals received approximately 100 out of 1,850 Administration-appointed positions -- considered an accurate gauge of political access -- in Clinton's first term, according to Richard Socarides, the White House liaison to gays and lesbians. Citing privacy concerns, however, the Administration has released the names of only 25 of the gay staffers. Five, including Lehman and well-known gay activist Roberta Achtenberg, former assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, were appointed to positions that required Senate confirmation.

Announcements of the recent appointments came after gay political groups complained about what they perceived as an inadequate number of gay appointees. Noting that there have been only 25 openly gay and lesbian appointees in the second term, Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch wrote to Clinton in June asking him for his "direct intervention into the placement process. …