Born On This Day, 1950: Roberta Achtenberg

Jim Burroway

July 20th, 2016

Roberta Achtenberg

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) wasn’t about to let President Bill Clinton appoint her as Assistant Secretary for Housing and Urban Development if he had anything to say about it. “She’s not your garden-variety lesbian,” he complained. “She’s a militant-activist-mean lesbian, working her whole career to advance the homosexual agenda. Now you think I’m going to sit still and let her be confirmed by the Senate? … If you want to call me a bigot, go ahead.” Helms was a bigot, and, garden-variety lesbian or not, she nevertheless became the first openly gay person to receive a Senate confirmation for an administration position (May 7).

The daughter of immigrants grew up in Los Angeles and attended college at UCLA and UC Berkeley, before studying law at Hastings Law School in San Francisco and the University of Utah. She had married another male law student while at Berkeley, but the couple divorced amicably after Achtenberg figured out she was a lesbian.

Achtenberg quickly became concerned about the legal disadvantages that gays and lesbians experience, and as a member of the Anti-Sexism Committee of the National Lawyers Guild, she helped to write a manual to advise lawyers representing gay and lesbian clients. She also began working with the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, and then co-founded the Lesbian Rights Project, which later became the National Center for Lesbian Rights. In 1979, she met attorney Mary Morgan, who already had a well-established track record representing lesbian mothers in custody cases. By then, Achtenberg was out, and she was ready for politics. She ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the California State Assembly in 1988, and she succeeded in getting elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1989. When a little-known former Arkansas governor decided to run for president, Achtenberg joined the Clinton campaign and worked on the Democratic Party’s drafting committee.

When Clinton nominated Achtenberg for HUD Assistant Secretary, conservative Christians were outraged. They accused Achtenberg of launching a “personal vendetta” against the Boy Scouts because she was one of fifty — fifty! — members of the San Francisco United Way board of directors who voted unanimously to deny funding to the Scouts because of their discriminatory anti-gay policies. The Christian Action Network circulated a videotape of Achtenberg and Morgan, showing them hugging each other, ever so briefly, during the 1992 San Francisco Pride parade. Helms called that brief contact an “insane assault on family values.” Achtenberg was nevertheless confirmed in a 58-31 vote.

Achtenberg left HUD in 1995 to run for mayor of San Francisco, but lost. She served on the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce until 2005, and she was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Cal State in 2000, becoming chair in 2006. In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed her to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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