Achtenberg Becomes Assistant Housing Secretary Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After a bitter debate and public mudslinging that included conservative U.S. senator Jesse Helms calling Roberta Achtenberg a “damn lesbian,” Achtenberg was approved by the Senate as assistant housing secretary, becoming the highest-ranking out lesbian or gay individual in the U.S. government.

Summary of Event

On May 24, 1993, in a historic 58-31 vote in the U.S. Senate, Roberta Achtenberg was confirmed as assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), thereby becoming, according to the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, “the first avowed lesbian appointed to such a high federal office.” The acrimony surrounding Achtenberg’s confirmation made history as well because conservative Christian Right senators excoriated Achtenberg as a public servant and “militant activist” lesbian. Achtenberg’s nomination, however, was one of many threatened nominations and policies put forth by the fledgling Clinton administration. [kw]Achtenberg Becomes Assistant Housing Secretary (May 24, 1993) [kw]Assistant Housing Secretary, Achtenberg Becomes (May 24, 1993) [kw]Housing Secretary, Achtenberg Becomes Assistant (May 24, 1993) Politicians;lesbian [c]Government and politics;May 24, 1993: Achtenberg Becomes Assistant Housing Secretary[2300] Achtenberg, Roberta Clinton, Bill Helms, Jesse

President Bill Clinton’s Clinton, Bill nomination of Achtenberg was logical because she was respected within the legal field, the lesbian and gay community, and the Democratic Party. Her work as a civil rights attorney, who advocated the equal treatment of gays and lesbians in housing, parenting, child care, and HIV-AIDS-related care, was well known. Equally important was that Achtenberg was a prominent player in bringing lesbian and gay concerns to the Clinton camp during the California primary; even then Clinton had promised her a post in Washington. After Clinton’s election, William Waybourn, of the National Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, persuaded Clinton’s transition team that Achtenberg might obtain that promise. For these reasons Achtenberg received the offer to be HUD assistant secretary—along with the promise of a grueling confirmation process.

To prepare for the difficult hearings held by the Senate’s Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, Achtenberg became familiar with an inclusive document on all fair housing law, which had been collated by concerned Washington, D.C., lawyers. For her testimony, Achtenberg introduced her life partner, Mary Morgan Morgan, Mary (a former San Francisco municipal court judge), her family, and staff, then proceeded to deliver, according to authors David Mixner and David Bailey, a “thoroughgoing assessment of public policy, fortified by statistics and case studies.”

After her testimony, several committee members orchestrated a barrage of questions impugning Achtenberg’s ability to deal fairly with those who did not have a “gay rights” agenda—the same argument that senators Trent Lott, Lott, Trent Orin Hatch, Hatch, Orin Bob Dole, Dole, Robert and the notorious Jesse Helms reiterated during Senate proceedings. Their critique focused on Achtenberg’s vote as a board member of the United Way to cut off funding to the Boy Scouts of America because of its policy against having gay or bisexual scouts or scout leaders, and on her urging the city of San Francisco to discontinue doing business with Bank of America for its support of the Boy Scouts. Even Achtenberg’s relationship with Morgan was grist for the conservatives’ mill. Achtenberg dealt with these mischaracterizations with determination, and she documented her actions, placing them in context. Supportive senators fought for confirmation.

A highly influential factor, however, in Achtenberg’s confirmation is that supportive senators were well briefed and lobbied by savvy lesbian and gay politicos. Sensing that Achtenberg’s nomination was in trouble during committee hearings, these leaders turned out support for Achtenberg and lobbied swing-vote senators. Despite opposition, Achtenberg would become the first out lesbian or gay individual to be confirmed to such a high-level position in the federal government.


Roberta Achtenberg’s 1993 confirmation is a landmark for a number of reasons. First, it is historic that Achtenberg was the first out lesbian to take office via presidential appointment and Senate approval. Second, according to journalist Larry Leibert, her “nomination produced a bi-partisan consensus in Congress that no one should be barred from a government position solely because of their sexual orientation.” Third, strong and influential lesbian and gay activists worked for Achtenberg’s nomination and confirmation. Thus, Democratic presidential candidates and U.S. politicians who were enlightened enough to incorporate the GLBT community into the political landscape, saw a community, which included Achtenberg, prepared for party politics and leadership. Politicians;lesbian

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Achtenberg, Roberta, ed. Sexual Orientation and the Law. Deerfield, Ill.: Clark Bordman Callaghan, 1985.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Achtenberg Confirmed for HUD Post.” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report 51, no. 22 (1993).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borlund, John. “Profile: Roberta Achtenberg:” CJ Weekly 24 (April, 1995): 4.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Jeffrey L. “HUD Nominee’s Lesbianism Sets off Senate Debate.” Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report 51, no. 21 (1993).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leibert, Larry. “Washington Perspective: The Achtenberg Nomination.” California Journal 24, no. 7 (July, 1993).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Diane Helene. Freedom to Differ: The Shaping of the Gay and Lesbian Struggle for Human Rights. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mixner, David, and Dennis Bailey. Brave Journeys. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rayside, David. On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

1961: Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office

1971: Kameny Is First Out Candidate for U.S. Congress

March 5, 1974: Antigay and Antilesbian Organizations Begin to Form

November 5, 1974: Noble Is First Out Lesbian or Gay Person to Win State-Level Election

November 27, 1978: White Murders Politicians Moscone and Milk

1979: Moral Majority Is Founded

July 14, 1983: Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress

November 6, 1984: West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council

May 30, 1987: U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay

June 28, 2000: Boy Scouts of America v. Dale

January, 2006: Jiménez Flores Elected to the Mexican Senate

Categories: History