Openly Gay Federal Judges Are Obama’s Most Enduring Gay Rights Achievement

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June 17 2014 4:08 PM

Obama’s Most Enduring Gay Rights Achievement

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President Obama has brought diversity to the federal bench.

Photo by Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed three more of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees to the federal bench, where they will have lifetime tenure as district court judges. Two of the nominees are openly gay; one, Judge Darrin Gayles, is the first openly gay African American man to serve in the federal judiciary. Gayles was confirmed 97-0.

Because the appointment of a district court judge isn’t usually huge news, it’s easy to overlook how much diversity—especially sexual diversity—Obama has added to the judiciary. When he took office, only one openly gay judge, Clinton appointee Deborah Batts, served on the federal bench. (Judge Vaughn Walker, nominated by Ronald Reagan and confirmed under George H.W. Bush, did not come out until 2011, after his retirement.) But over the last six years, Obama has brought 10 openly gay judges to the judiciary: Gayles, Staci Michelle Yandle, Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro, Alison Nathan, Paul Oetken, Michael Fitzgerald, Michael McShane, Judith Levy, and Pamela Ki Mai Chen to district courts and Todd Hughes to the federal circuit.*

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This is really an astonishing achievement. For most of the 20th century, gay people were driven from government jobs and vilified as too perverted and aberrant to work in even the most low-level positions. Today, they populate the most esteemed positions the government has to offer. Long after don’t ask, don’t tell repeal fades from memory and marriage equality becomes a settled issue, these judges will still be on the bench. They might not reflect Obama’s most visible gay rights achievements. But in a very real sense, they will be his most enduring. 

* Correction, June 18, 2014: This post originally left Judith Levy and Todd Hughes off the list of openly gay judges nominated by President Obama.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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