President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly vowed to make LGBTQ rights a priority in his administration. But he won’t be working alone: The former vice president has already tapped LGBTQ appointees for several key roles and gay rights advocates are hopeful that more will be named, including the first out Cabinet member confirmed by the Senate. There’s also a push, should an opening become available, for him to nominate the first openly LGBTQ justice to the Supreme Court.
The Biden-Harris transition team has promoted the president-elect's “commitment to building an administration that looks like America.”
On Sunday, Karine Jean-Pierre, an out lesbian and chief of staff for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, was announced as deputy press secretary, and Pili Tobar, an immigration rights advocate and former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was named deputy White House communications director. Tobar, a lesbian, also worked as a communications director for the Biden campaign.
In November, Carlos Elizondo, who is gay and was Biden’s social secretary when Biden was vice president, was named White House social secretary.
‘Smart choices’ and ‘intersectionality’
Ruben Gonzales, vice president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which trains and advocates for queer candidates at all levels of government, noted that the LGBTQ people named to the incoming administration so far are all people of color.
“I think it speaks to the president-elect’s understanding of intersectionality,” he said.
Gonzales said it’s important to have LGBTQ people in the administration because “we know our lives better — we know what protections mean in health care, in housing, in the workplace.”
“Look at how Trump changed guidance about bathrooms, for example,” he added. “A trans person understands what that means in really stark terms.”
Raffi Freedman-Gurspan became the first openly transgender person to work in the White House when President Barack Obama appointed her to the Presidential Personnel Office in 2015.
She praised the Biden team’s “smart choices,” saying it selected talented candidates with impressive resumes.
“Just because they’re coming in doesn’t mean they’ll be working on LGBTQ issues,” she told NBC News. “When I was in the White House, the vast majority of us weren’t. We were working for the EPA, the Small Business Administration, on security issues. Having LGBTQ people at every table, at every level, is still crucial, though, because we are everywhere and are impacted by everything. You don’t want an initiative to land flat or miss an important segment of the population.”
Beyond an out Cabinet member, Freedman-Gurspan predicts a nonbinary person will be appointed at some level. “I know there are some interviewing,” she said.
Biden has also named LGBTQ personnel to his transition team, including the agency review teams, responsible for scrutinizing federal agencies before he takes office. According to a release from the Biden-Harris team, roughly 40 percent of agency review members members represent “communities historically underrepresented in the federal government, including people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities.”
Chai Feldblum, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission member who was instrumental in drafting the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General Pamela Karlan, co-counsel in United States v. Windsor, which struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, are reviewing the Department of Justice and related agencies for the Biden transition team, the Advocate reported, including the Federal Election Commission and the Commission on Civil Rights.
Dave Noble, former deputy director of the Presidential Personnel Office for Obama, is part of the teams advising NASA and the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the transition. Shawn Skelly, a transgender Navy veteran and executive secretary for the Department of Transportation under Obama, has been named to the Department of Defense review board.
"Allies are invaluable, but the impact of policies on LGBTQ lives is not always fully understood by someone outside our community."
Annise Parker, LGBTQ Victory Fund
Throughout the campaign, Biden promised to move swiftly to repeal President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender service members.
He’s also vowed to restore nondiscrimination requirements for federal contractors, advocate for LGBTQ rights on the global stage and sign the Equality Act within his first 100 days in office. The Equality Act, which passed the House last year but was never given a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, would prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, education, public accommodation and other sectors.
These are big commitments, which advocates say require input from the community.
“Members of Joe Biden’s Cabinet will have tremendous influence over the policies and direction of the next administration, so it is essential an LGBTQ voice is at the table,” Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute and LGBTQ Victory Fund, said in a statement. “Allies are invaluable, but the impact of policies on LGBTQ lives is not always fully understood by someone outside our community.”
‘Biden’s legacy on equality’
Part of Ruben Gonzales’ role at the Victory Institute is to oversee its Presidential Appointments Initiative, a nonpartisan endeavor to get LGBTQ staffers into administration roles.
“It began during the Clinton administration with David Mixner leveraging his influence to advocate for LGBTQ appointees, but it was really informal then,” Gonzales told NBC News.
The program became more standardized during the Obama administration, which welcomed a record 330 out staffers, many assisted by the Presidential Appointments Initiative.
The hope is to make Biden’s administration even more inclusive: So far Gonzales’ office has fielded more than 750 resumes, from those applying for Cabinet-level posts to those seeking their first job in government.
He said the ultimate goal is for the Biden White House to have the first openly LGBTQ Cabinet member approved by the Senate.
“An LGBTQ Cabinet appointment will ensure our community is part of decision-making at the highest levels,” Gonzales said, “and would also be a lasting piece of Joe Biden’s legacy on equality.”
In February, Trump appointed a gay man, Richard Grenell, as acting director of national intelligence, making him the first out member of a presidential Cabinet. But Grenell’s appointment, which lasted only three months, was never confirmed by the Senate.
Gonzales is hopeful Biden will break that barrier and says there’s a strong surplus of contenders. The Victory Institute intends to put forward former presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg as a possible secretary of Veterans Affairs and former Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau as secretary of education.
In 2009, Juneau, a lesbian, became the first Native American woman elected to statewide office in the U.S. “As a woman, a former teacher and a Native American, Denise would be such an asset,” Gonzales said.
Other names being floated include Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., to head up Health and Human Services and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., for secretary of Veterans Affairs.
At the very top of Gonzales’ personal wish list, though, is Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, one of just a few transgender officials in government. Gonzales would like to see her confirmed as surgeon general.
“Having a transgender person taking that kind of leadership role would be a win on so many levels — from her understanding of the complexities of health care in America to helping people understand trans lives,” he said. “Dr. Levine received unanimous support in Pennsylvania when she was nominated — from Democrats and Republicans both — and we hope the Senate will follow that example.”
CORRECTION (Dec. 4, 2020, 5:05 p.m., ET): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the position for which the LGBTQ Victory Institute intends to recommend Pete Buttigieg. It's for secretary of Veterans Affairs, not ambassador to the United Nations.