“He’s not somebody you would pick out of a crowd as being a gay activist,” recalled Steve Elkins, a local advocate for LGBT issues.
And that’s just what makes the director of the Office of Personnel Management an asset to the Obama campaign, even if, at times, Berry has struck some activists as too ready to compromise.
On that summer evening, the unassuming but effervescent bureaucrat gave a passionate recitation of the president’s record on gay rights and a pledge that a second term would bring full equality. And threaded through those remarks was Berry’s personal story. It’s a tale of
humanity that has
so widely that he’s become a quiet
figurehead, not so much fighting a full-throated battle for gay rights as embodying a philosophical shift: Gay
relationships, Berry suggests with his
presence, are normal, humane, right. An openly gay man can run a federal agency. He’s accepted by conservative veterans.
Berry told the donors in Rehoboth how he made the risky decision at 25 to come out to his devout Catholic parents, his terror that they and God would reject him, his Marine father’s painful decision to ban Berry’s partner from the family’s Rockville home for Sunday dinners. And redemption: When the partner, Tom, was dying of AIDS in 1996, the elder Berry held him in his arms and told him he loved him as a son.
“I heard a cheerleader,” Elkins said after the fundraiser, which reeled in $30,000. “John’s a great ambassador.”
The political and personal have always been intertwined for Berry, 53, a career public servant who became, with Obama’s election, the highest-ranking openly gay federal official in history. But no more so than now as he takes on a new role helping reelect the president.
“We’re going to use the heck out of John,” said Brian Bond, a former White House adviser who is leading campaign outreach. “He has the kind of message you would want out there, amplifying the president’s message on many fronts.”
Wearing two hats
Officially, Berry oversees federal human resource policy, a job that includes reforming an infamously belabored hiring system, deciding whether to shut down the government when it snows and making government work “cool again.”
Unofficially, he’s the White House’s secret weapon in the fight to make being gay as acceptable as being straight — and not just in Barney Frank’s district.
“The president asked me to wear two hats,” Berry recalled of the marching orders Obama gave him in 2009. “Lead HR for the government and be the highest-ranking gay official.”
He toggles between those worlds, guiding HR managers in new ways to measure whether federal workers are doing a good job one month, keynoting for the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Denver fundraiser another month.