WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday appointed two prominent gays to important positions in his administration and nominated an openly gay attorney to a judgeship for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Roberta Achtenberg, a longtime lesbian civil rights activist in San Francisco and the first openly gay presidential appointee (under President Clinton), has been named as a commissioner on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She will be one of eight members of the commission — four of who are appointed by the president and four appointed by Congress.
Jeffrey Levi, who once headed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, received an appointment as a member of the newly created Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.
And Obama nominated openly gay attorney J. Paul Oetken to become one of 44 judges serving the federal district court that encompasses Manhattan. The U.S. Senate must approve Oetken’s nomination.
If approved, Oetken would become the second openly gay judge in that federal district –along with Deborah Batts. He would be the third openly gay federal judge in the country — along with Emily Hewitt of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Batts and Hewitt were both appointed by President Clinton.
Oetken is not President Obama’s first openly gay nominee to the federal bench. In April of last year, he nominated Edward DuMont to a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal District. If approved, DuMont would be the first openly gay appointee to a federal appeals court. But DuMont’s nomination — along with that of many others — has been tied up by Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate.
Oetkin served as associate counsel to the President in the Clinton White House and served as an attorney-advisor with the Clinton Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He currently works as senior vice president and associate general council for Cablevisions Systems Corporation. Oetkin served as a clerk for former Justice Harry Blackmun, one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s more liberal justices.
Achtenberg, who co-founded the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and is a former member of the of San Francisco Board of Supervisors, is best known as “that damn lesbian.” That’s the designation flung her way by notoriously anti-gay U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Helms opposed Achtenberg’s appointment as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Clinton.
The Senate approved Achtenberg’s appointment over Helms’ objections. She later worked with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco Center for Economic Development. She is currently a member of the California State University Board of Trustees and Vice Chair of the Board of the Bank of San Francisco.
Jeff Levi was the first lobbyist ever hired by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and later served as its executive director. Levi served as Deputy Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy under President Clinton and worked, for a time, as an associate editor of the American Journal of Public Health.
Levi has worked on HIV policy issues since the beginning of the epidemic and currently works as Executive Director of Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), a non-profit organization dedicated to making disease prevention a national priority. He is also professor of health policy at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.