As President-elect Joe Biden’s high-stakes game of cabinet musical chairs comes close to a conclusion, the number of seats available for an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person to join the highest ranks of Biden’s administration is decreasing every day.
Now, with the announcement that longtime aide Denis McDonough had been nominated to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs—a role seen by many movement leaders as a cabinet position of last resort for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg—pressure from advocacy groups and key supporters is increasing for Biden to live up to his campaign promise to nominate an openly LGBTQ cabinet member.
“I’ve been impressed with the folks he’s chosen,” Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund and the former mayor of Houston, told The Daily Beast. “But our community will be extremely disappointed if the commitment to inclusion does not extend to us.”
Even before Biden’s election, movement leaders were exceedingly hopeful that he would name an out cabinet official for Senate confirmation, a historic first. (Although President Donald Trump appointed longtime supporter Ric Grenell to serve in a temporary acting capacity as director of national intelligence, a cabinet-level position, he was never officially nominated to the position and was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate.)
But as promising out LGBTQ candidates to serve as surgeon general, U.S. trade representative, director of the Office of Management and Budget or ambassador to the United Nations have been passed over—although those who have been named to fill those positions are a historically diverse group from the standpoint of gender, race and national origin—movement leaders have become increasingly itchy for the president-elect to make good on his promise to appoint a cabinet “representative of all folks—Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, across the board.”
Some in the movement have looked on with frustration as Biden’s transition has snapped to attention when civil rights organizations pressed for more high-ranking Black members of the cabinet while not showing the same level of responsiveness to LGBTQ organizations.
“Jim Clyburn has, without a doubt, earned the right to make that kind of request,” the leader of one prominent Democrat-aligned LGBTQ group told The Daily Beast, referring to the South Carolina congressman to whom Biden is indebted for a primary endorsement that brought his presidential campaign back from the brink, and whose support for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and retired Gen. Lloyd Austin is seen as instrumental in securing them positions in the administration. “But it’d be nice if the transition gave us the same respect, because we have earned it.”
Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff, has not yet met with the leadership of the congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus, despite an open invitation to meet and Biden’s campaign promise to make the passage of the Equality Act a top priority of his first 100 days in office. The caucus, which includes 165 members of the House, took the step of releasing a letter on Tuesday expressing frustration that Biden had not yet named an out member of the cabinet.
“While your administration is on track to be the most diverse in American history, we ask that you continue your commitment to diversity by ensuring LGBTQ+ professionals are included in your cabinet and throughout your administration,” wrote the letter’s signatories, which included Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Angie Craig (D-MN), Sharice Davids (D-KS), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), Mark Pocan (D-WI), and Mark Takano (D-CA), all of whom are openly LGBTQ, as well as Reps.-elect Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres, both Democrats of New York.
“The groundbreaking Obergefell decision is now at risk of being overturned with Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court,” the letter continued, referring to the landmark ruling that granted same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. “That is why it is critical that LGBTQ+ Americans are appointed to the cabinet, senior staff positions, and the judiciary.”
Many LGBTQ allies of the president-elect emphasized that the chances for an out cabinet official do not rise and fall with Buttigieg, whose circle had been quietly cheerleading him as a potential U.N. ambassador before the role was given to Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Other possible opportunities for him to join the cabinet were seen by those close to Buttigieg as too close to “staff positions” (director of the Office of Management and Budget) or as a political dead-end for any ambitious politician (secretary of veterans affairs).
Reached for comment, the transition provided The Daily Beast with a statement from spokesperson Jamal Brown, who said that “over the coming weeks, our team will continue to build upon President-elect Biden’s legacy of advancing LGBTQ+ equality by building a government that looks like and reflects the breadth and diversity of America.”
But despite that commitment, other potentially history-making nominees have fallen by the wayside. Lobbying on behalf of Fred Hochberg, former chair of the Export–Import Bank of the United States, for the role of U.S. trade representative were unsuccessful, as was the public push by groups like the Victory Fund for Biden to name Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, who is transgender, to the role of surgeon general.
Of course, the most important lesson in life is the graceful execution of Plan B, and there are still open positions with logical LGBTQ candidates to fill them: Hochberg is seen as a strong candidate to lead the Small Business Administration; Denise Juneau, former superintendent of the Seattle public school system, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, are both being pushed to lead the Department of Education. Weingarten has been floated as a potential labor secretary, as well.
Those familiar with the transition even say that Buttigieg could still be considered for one of the remaining roles in the cabinet, like secretary of transportation. On the campaign trail, Buttigieg seemed most content when he was talking about infrastructure improvements in South Bend, although one Democrat familiar with the pitch snarked that “a town with four stop lights and a mid-sized regional airport with three flights a day” is hardly a transportation hub. (South Bend International Airport had 13 departures and seven arrivals scheduled for Friday, but the point was well taken.)
With that many candidates on the table, some allies are urging patience among LGBTQ people hankering for representation in the highest levels of government.
“He has a reputation that when he makes a commitment he keeps his commitment, so we’re patient, and we’re engaged,” Parker said of Biden. “While we’re excited about the possibility of Pete Buttigieg being in the administration in some way, our appointments initiative doesn’t center around Mayor Pete. We’re involved in the long game.”
Lucas Acosta, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, to which the Biden campaign farmed out much of its LGBTQ voter outreach operations, was similarly confident.
“Joe Biden is committed to putting forward a cabinet that reflects the diversity of our nation, both with gender, sexual orientation, race and background, and we are confident that he will make good on that commitment,” said Acosta. “He has already made good on his commitment in numerous areas and we look forward to working with him and his cabinet to effect the real change that LGBTQ people need.”
But while concerns about representation among movement leaders are very real, another fear is creeping in as the clock ticks down on an out cabinet member: if LGBTQ advocacy groups can’t secure an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Senate-confirmed cabinet member in an administration as friendly to their needs as Biden’s, the movement risks being seen as not having the political capital needed to push Congress to support critical parts of its legislative agenda, like the Equality Act.
A transition official told The Daily Beast that Biden is firmly committed to passing the Equality Act—which would expand federal nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing and public accommodations to include sexual orientation and gender identity—and that he would “joyously sign it” if passed in the Senate. The official also reiterated that once the dust has settled, Biden’s cabinet will reflect the American people, “and that means everyone.”