LGBT at the White House

November 30, 2011

Gautam Raghavan and Kei Koizumi and Terri Harris Reed speak at panel discussion on stage

Two White House officials with GW connections spoke at Jack Morton Auditorium Tuesday evening, touching on topics ranging from the Obama administration’s priorities on LGBT issues to why it’s vital that LGBT individuals take positions at all levels of government. The event, called “Being LGBT at the White House,” was cosponsored by the Graduate School of Political Management and the Allied in Pride graduate student organization.

Speakers Gautam Raghavan and Kei Koizumi both hold positions in the Obama administration. Mr. Raghavan is associate director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, and is currently completing a master’s degree in political management in GSPM. Mr. Koizumi is assistant director for federal research and development within the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. He earned a master’s degree from GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs in 1995. Both are openly gay in their personal and professional lives.

Terri Harris Reed, GW’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion, moderated the discussion. “I’ve only been at GW for about six months, but I’ve been impressed by the number of individuals coming forward as supporters and advocates of GW’s diversity and inclusion agenda,” she said.

Each panelist described his typical day and discussed the issues in his portfolio at the White House. Mr. Raghavan’s role in the Office of Public Engagement involves working as the White House’s liaison to LGBT communities and people nationwide. He is one of only a few White House LGBT liaisons in history—the first was a member of the Clinton administration, and there was no liaison in the George W. Bush administration.

“We really try as much as possible to push beyond the Beltway,” Mr. Raghavan said. “As you can imagine, the conversations we have here are very different from the conversations people are having across the country. I talk to people at LGBT community centers, HIV/AIDS clinics, and folks working with equality organizations and nondiscrimination organizations—anything that affects the day-to-day lives of LGBT people.”

Mr. Koizumi works to link cutting-edge science and technology research to policy, and also assists in making policy for science and technology fields. Much of his work revolves around research and development, he said, and ensuring that the United States makes good investments of its science and technology funds.

Mr. Koizumi said that one of his priorities is to integrate LGBT talent into broader nationwide science and technology talent. “The president has made it clear that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment in terms of educating the next-generation work force,” he said. “When he says all hands, that means everyone. I’m trying to get the message out that LGBT Americans and LGBT students are a part of that vision.”

One of the projects he’s been most proud of, Mr. Koizumi said, was an “Out to Innovate” STEM career fair held last year in California. A second fair is in the works for Columbus, Ohio. “We want all Americans to consider science and math careers,” he said.

Mr. Raghavan said one of his goals is to see LGBT people in positions across the government. “It’s progress to have LGBT people not just working on LGBT issues,” he said. “We are scientists and engineers, we are national security specialists, we are the whole range—it’s about ensuring we’re at every table where decisions are made.”

Mr. Raghavan also discussed the Obama administration’s work on hospital visitation rights and relayed the story of Janice Langbehn, a lesbian who was barred from visiting her dying partner in the hospital. As a result of a rule made by the Department of Health and Human Services at President Obama’s direction, all hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid may no longer deny same-sex partners visitation rights.

An important part of both of their jobs, the panelists said, is making the public aware that LGBT issues are far-reaching, even for non-LGBT people. The recent repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy is a good example. “The story of the repeal is an example of what can happen when a lot of things come into alignment,” Mr. Raghavan said. “You have the leadership of the president, strong leadership in Congress, advocates doing incredible work, plus courageous men and women in uniform who are willing to tell their stories. And the leadership has said that overall, since repeal, service members are acting with professionalism and respect for one another.”

Mr. Koizumi said that while meeting “rock star scientists” and learning about their research is one of the professional highlights of his job, there have also been personal highlights.

“As an LGBT person, I had a chance to introduce my husband to my boss, who is the president’s science adviser,” he said. “And every part of that sentence is just really cool.”

Both panelists said they hope to remain in government service as their careers progress, and both want to remain part of the Obama administration for as long as possible.

“I didn’t make it that far from GW,” Mr. Koizumi joked. “I only made it a couple of blocks since I got my degree.” He is currently teaching a course on science and technology policy as an adjunct instructor at GW.

Michael Komo, president of Allied in Pride Graduate Students and a legislative affairs graduate student and staff member in GSPM, said he was thrilled with the discussion.

"The event provided a unique opportunity for people of all backgrounds in the GW community to better understand the current issues facing LGBT individuals," he said. "By having LGBT representatives from the White House serve as the panelists, the audience was able to gain valuable insight into exactly how the Obama administration is working to address the needs of the LGBT community and further equality."

Andrew Raker, a museum studies graduate student who attended the discussion, said he thought it effectively highlighted the important work LGBT people are doing.

“I felt that the event provided a good overview of the forward strides LGBT people have made in political life,” he said. “While further challenges are still present, I left with a sense that they are not insurmountable.”