Will there ever be a gay Cabinet secretary?

While Joe Biden has rightfully reached out to other minority groups for key cabinet posts, the LGBT community hasn't gotten offered even one. Why?

There has never been an openly-gay (or transgender, for that matter) US Cabinet secretary. And it’s not clear that we’re getting one now. Why does it even matter? Read on.

Over the past 30 years, gays have gone from being considered a federal workforce security risk — I passed the Foreign Service Exam in 1989 and didn’t follow my life’s dream of becoming a diplomat because I feared I’d be kicked out for being gay — to serving as ambassadors and other senior administration positions. But we never made it to the president’s Cabinet until Donald Trump appointed Richard Grenell acting Director of National Intelligence — a Cabinet-level position, though not a Cabinet secretary.

There are currently 23 members of Trump’s Cabinet, including the Vice President, 14 Cabinet secretaries and the Attorney General, and 7 Cabinet-level appointees (who are not secretaries, but are considered Cabinet level, such as the White House Chief of Staff, the US Trade Representative, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Director of the CIA, etc.).

There was a glowing article at NBC News about the record number of LGBT people that Biden is appointing. But is he really? If you’re non-binary, Biden is reportedly thinking of hiring someone non-binary in the administration. And that’s certainly an advance for non-binary people, but it’s not an advance for gay people, who got those kind of mid-level appointments thirty years ago.

For gay people, this feels like a flashback to the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton appointed the first-ever openly-gay senior members of a presidential administration, including an ambassador (James Hormel to Luxembourg), the head of the Export-Import Bank (Fred Hochberg), an assistant secretary (Roberta Achtenberg at HUD), and a not-quite-out-not-quite-in Cabinet secretary (so they don’t count, as they’ve refused to be acknowledged publicly). Those were all amazing advances in their day. But flash forward to 2021, and there has still never been an openly-gay Secretary of an agency in any administration, Democrat or Republican, nor has a Democratic president ever appointed someone gay to a Cabinet-level post. (There has also never been an openly-gay Supreme Court nominee; and while other minority groups jockey for a position on that court, the gays aren’t even in consideration).

Which raises the question: Why does it matter how many Blacks, Latinos or LGBT people Biden appoints to top positions?

I always answer that “it matters because it matters.” In a perfect world, no one would care how many Cabinet secretaries are female, Black, Latino, gay or a member of any other community, because we’d include everyone as a normal part of hiring qualified people. But we live in a world in which those groups are usually never represented, in business and government, to the same degree they exist in the population at large. Women, Blacks, Latinos and gays have to constantly fight for visibility because our inclusion often seems an afterthought, if that.

Diverse candidates also bring a diversity of experience, which has been well-documented in employment literature over the years, but what matters to me even more is the message this visibility sends to young people. I don’t know what it was like for young African-Americans to see Barack Obama become president, but I do know what it was like to be young, gay and have no gay role models at all. I just assumed I was a freak, and that people like me would never succeed in business or life (thus the reason I gave up my dream of joining the Foreign Service). It matters for young people to see that someone like them can make it.

Which takes us to Pete Buttigieg, the first serious openly-gay presidential candidate. (The first actual openly-gay candidate was Republican Fred Karger, who ran in 2012, but whose candidacy, unlike Pete’s, never took off.) There are rumors that Pete is being considered for an ambassadorship, perhaps to China. And that’s swell. But we’ve had gay ambassadors for over 20 years, so it’s not particularly ground-breaking. And while China is an important post, you could argue that Pete is being sent away, “out of sight, out of mind” — the less to rival a certain someone close to Biden who might prefer to be our party’s nominee in the future.

But regardless, China is not the Cabinet. UN Ambassador is, but that job is now taken.

As a gay man who has never seen someone like him as a Cabinet secretary, I watch with interest when Black and Latino groups rightfully complain that they’re only getting two or three Cabinet posts in a Democratic administration. I long for the day when my community can fret that a pair of Cabinet posts isn’t enough, when today we can’t even get one. That is not to suggest that the other nominations aren’t merited — they are. But it sticks in your craw when all the articles about minority representation in the Cabinet never even mention the LGBT community, when our community, like so many others, had a hand in Biden’s victory:

In 2020, the share of U.S. voters who identified as LGBT rivaled that of other minority communities, influencing who won and lost tight races. While initial exit polls suggested President Trump had surprisingly won more LGBT votes than any previous Republican presidential candidate, more recent data suggests that was not true. In fact, LGBT voters probably played a decisive role in swing states in handling the presidency to Joe Biden.

In 2012, Joe Biden famously got ahead of President Obama and came out in favor of marriage equality for gay couples. It was an amazingly bold move for a sitting Vice President, and is credited with getting Obama to evolve a little faster and eventually get on board. So we know that Joe Biden gets our issues. And we know that Joe Biden has been there for our community when we needed him most.

When even Donald Trump appoints a gay person to his Cabinet (though a particularly loathsome one), Joe Biden ought to do the same.

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PS Don’t you just totally want one?