Then and now: Federal policy and the value of LGTBQ+ public servants
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Then and now: Federal policy and the value of LGTBQ+ public servants

June 15, 2023 | Updated on July 10, 2023

Seventy years ago, President Eisenhower signed an executive order that classified certain federal employees as national security risks and banned their service in government. Reflecting widespread fears of homosexuality, the order drove what is today referred to as the “Lavender Scare,” a period of the 1950s and 1960s during which 5,000 to 10,000 LGBTQ+ federal employees were investigated, interrogated and lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

While that history may feel distant, it has often limited our government’s ability to effectively serve LGBTQ+ communities, preventing people with a firsthand knowledge of those communities from working in public service and shaping important LGBTQ+-related policy.   

Fortunately, the Biden administration is working to turn the tide. Since 2021, the administration has issued directives to support LBGTQ+ employees in the federal workforce, empowering them to use their lived experience to inform better policymaking on behalf of a group historically underserved by—and excluded from—our government.    

Changing the narrative 

For 40 years, discrimination against federal employees based on sexual orientation was standard practice. It took the White House until 1995 to issue an executive order stating that the government would not do so.  

Nevertheless, almost 20 years later, openly-identifying LGBTQ+ federal employees still only composed 2% of the federal workforce

Today, that is beginning to change.   

In 2021, President Biden signed an executive order to “promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce,” recognizing that it should reflect the diversity of underserved communities to deliver more equitable services. Due in part to this directive, the percentage of federal employees who identify as LGBTQ+ has grown in recent years—from less than 6% in 2020 to almost 7% in 2022. While there is room for further growth, this increase is a positive sign. 

The growing diversity of federal employees has been crucial to implementing the administration’s sweeping equity policy agenda, including the specific executive orders dedicated to individual underserved communities.  

Biden recently issued one such order that sought to advance equity for LGBTQ+ individuals, directing several agencies to develop actionable responses to 11 distinct barriers to LGBTQ+ wellness, including state legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, and to submit progress reports to the White House.  

The value of representation 

Importantly, these agencies are drawing on the lived experience of their LGBTQ+ staff to implement these new policies.  

For example, the directive orders the creation of a subcommittee to collect and use better data highlighting the challenges that LGBTQ+ individuals face. That subcommittee is composed of more than 40 subject-matter experts, including many LGBTQ+ individuals who “bring lived experience to the work alongside their technical expertise.” 

Together, they drafted a first-of-its-kind “Federal Evidence Agenda on LGBTQI+ Equity” that identifies federal data gaps on LGBTQ+ individuals and communities, and offers guidelines on how to better collect this data. The subcommittee will also help agencies as they work to implement this agenda, with members using their “in-depth knowledge of [the LGBTQ+] population” to meet its needs.  

In all, the administration is empowering LGBTQ+ staff to build a “roadmap” for advancing LGBTQ+ equity. Seventy years after these employees were banned from federal service due to their identity, their insights today are critical to shaping federal policies that will better serve LGBTQ+ communities.   

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