Close Call


A 1998 executive order issued by Bill Clinton and renewed by George W. Bush protects federal workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation. When a lesbian or gay civil servant makes a bias complaint, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigates. But on January 27, Bush appointee Scott J. Bloch removed sexuality from the list of protected categories listed on his agency’s website.

Bloch based his reasoning on an arcane provision of a 1978 law barring discrimination against federal workers for personal conduct that doesn’t bear on job performance. Bloch’s office insisted that the provision doesn’t apply to sexual orientation, only to activities such as attending a Pride Parade. Noting that 36 states allow discrimination against gay and lesbian workers, he felt entitled to follow suit. “The statute does not mention sexual orientation, and neither do the courts,” Bloch declared at the time.

Though the OSC decision was scantily covered, gay groups got wind of it and responded in a coordinated fashion rare for queer politics. The Log Cabin Republicans joined forces with civil service unions, Connecticut Republican Chris Shays teamed up with Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, and the Human Rights Campaign, which goes both ways, put its gay lobbying operation in high gear. By March, a statement from 70 members of Congress skewered Bloch and forced the president’s hand.

Fresh from declaring his support for a federal amendment barring same-sex marriage, Bush now risked alienating gays and moderate straights even further. Recall that in 2000 about a million queers voted Republican. Though that number represented only 25 percent of the out gay vote (with 70 percent going to Al Gore and 5 percent to Ralph Nader), it was located in key electoral states, such as Florida. If the 2004 presidential election is anywhere near as close as the previous one, queers could help decide Bush’s fate. No wonder the White House effectively reversed Bloch’s call on April 1, declaring that “longstanding federal policy . . . protects federal workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

Just mentioning those last two words was a small victory. But the rollback on gay visibility goes on. This week’s Advocate notes that the Department of Health and Human Service’s first annual “National Healthcare Disparities Report” routinely ignores gay people, relegating them largely to “other demographic groups” that are “beyond the scope of this report.” That from the desk of HHS secretary Tommy Thompson, known to be among the most gay-friendly Bushies.

As for the OSC web site, it still doesn’t mention sexual orientation, and an agency spokesperson refused to say whether it ever would. Memo to Log Cabin Republicans (freely translated from my mother’s Yiddish): “When someone pees on you, don’t call it rain.”