Today, President Barack Obama announced that he had named Roberta Achtenberg to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Although Achtenberg has a long resume and list of accomplishments, she is best known in LGBT history for the attacks she faced in the '90s from then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Achtenberg, a civil rights attorney and former San Francisco commissioner, served assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton. The first openly LGBT person approved for a Senate-confirmed position, it was during the Senate's consideration of her nomination that Helms said he would not support her nomination "because she's damn lesbian." He later said that his problem was that Achtenberg was a lesbian activist, not simply a lesbian, but the line stuck.
In 2008, she served as one of the initial members of the Health and Human Services transition advisory committee for Obama following his presidential election. Achtenberg had, though, been an early supporter of now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, serving on the LGBT Americans for Hillary steering committee during the Democratic primary.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission does not have enforcement authority, but it reports that its mission includes the ability to "investigate complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote by reason of their race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or by reason of fraudulent practices."
It also, according to the commission, "stud[ies] and collect[s] information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice."
Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said in a statement, "Roberta Achtenberg is a public servant of the highest caliber and will be a critical voice on the commission in ensuring that the civil rights of all Americans are protected. LGBT equality is the civil rights issue of our time and this position will allow her to bring our community’s concerns front and center in the national dialogue."
Additionally, Obama named Jeffrey Levi -- who ran the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Washington, D.C., office in the early days of the AIDS crisis -- as a member of the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. According to the White House information released today, Levi currently is the executive director of Trust for America's Health, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to making disease prevention a national priority.