Right now, the LGBT equality movement is filled with conflicting emotions, intense passions and nervous energy — just like the rest of the country. We are not alone in our angst.
When Dr. Frank Kameny was fired from his position as an astronomer with the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 because of his sexual orientation, it was the policy of our government to deny any openly gay American federal employment. “The homosexual is a security risk … [we] will not permit their employment,” wrote one official. Of course, today we know how wrong our government was. It seems silly to suggest otherwise.
I was honored to offer Dr. Kameny a formal apology on behalf of the United States government last year. Frank stated that even he did not think he would see the day when an openly gay man would head the same agency that participated in firing him more than 50 years ago. “It’s as if we’ve gone from sea level to 18,000 feet,” he told me in conversation. “The summit is in sight. We’ve just got another thousand feet to go.”
And we have taken many steps toward creating that more perfect union. But in the midst of so much progress, the recent suicides by LGBT youth are especially painful. As sadly, Frank noted, the summit is now within our reach. What an amazing time we live in and how fortunate younger Americans are to be witnesses and participants in the final steps to secure our full civil rights. But too many don’t fully appreciate that amazing reality.
People like Dr. Kameny, pillars of the modern movement for equality, have brought us this far. But as any climber will tell you, the last thousand feet are the most treacherous. After years of struggle, exhaustion can set in. So close to our goal, the air is thin, our bodies tired, the winds of opposition whip increasingly around us.
But we know from history that this same steep peak — as frustrating and painful as it is to reach — has been conquered before. We tend to look back on history with rose-tinted glasses. But freedom and equality in America have never come easy. We forget that many American colonists saw the pursuit of liberty by our Founding Fathers as treason and would have cheered their hanging.
Recall when half the country — half the country — used any and all means to defend the institution of slavery. Susan B. Anthony was widely mocked in her time. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was martyred. Even the schoolchildren of the Little Rock Nine were spat upon and shouted down as they approached their goal. Every day, we are making progress toward securing the rights and freedoms that belong to all of us.
In under two years, President Obama and his record number of LGBT appointees have accomplished so much for LGBT Americans. His and Congress’ historic achievement of securing health-care reform finally cements the most important protections for those in our community who need them most — especially those living with HIV and AIDS.
Hospital visitation rights for all Americans, expanded benefits for the same-sex domestic partners of federal workers, enactment of the hate crimes law, increased coverage for those living with HIV/AIDS, federal support for LGBT community-based organizations, anti-bullying programs enacted in schools, support for our aging LGBT population and so much more.
These are real, concrete achievements that are saving and improving the lives of countless LGBT Americans right now.
I realize that this subtle — but dramatic — change is hard to appreciate when full equality is in sight. It’s understandable. I’m not taking my eyes off the goal or asking you to. Indeed, the president is the first to say that change hasn’t come fast enough. But he has called on all of us to charge full speed ahead.
The Tree of Liberty grows only by adding rings. From the Revolution to the Civil War, to women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement and onward, our entire nation has been enriched by every added ring. Now is our time to complete our ring.
All administration officials, me included, are accountable to that goal: to the principles upon which our republic was founded — liberty and justice for all.
We will not rest until discriminatory laws like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act are ended once and for all. And because no one should be denied a job because of discrimination, a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act must be enacted as well.
So hold us to account. Let us know when we’re right, be the wind in our sails when our momentum flags and pull us back to the path when we go astray. But whatever you do, don’t turn away. Don’t give up. Don’t relent. Educate yourself, educate others and fight for your beliefs. Speak up and speak out.
Our path forward is steep, but clear. Just like those who have gone before us, our mettle is being tested in this moment. History is watching and we will be judged by what we do right now. But what an incredible time to be alive! As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.” I couldn’t agree more. Bully!
John Berry is the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and is the highest-ranking openly LGBT official ever to hold a Senate-confirmed position in U.S. history.