To the 70 gay donors gathered for cocktails and crab balls at a six-bedroom compound in Rehoboth Beach, Del., this summer, the campaign fundraiser for President Obama was headlined by . . . no one familiar.
John Berry — a Washington bureaucrat who runs an obscure agency in charge of federal workers — showed up in khakis and a striped dress shirt and started to work the crowd, which paid up to $2,500 each to be there.
“He’s not somebody you would pick out of a crowd as being a gay activist,” recalled Steve Elkins, a local advocate for LGBT issues.
And that’s just what makes the director of the Office of Personnel Management an asset to the Obama campaign, even if, at times, Berry has struck some activists as too ready to compromise.
On that summer evening, the unassuming but effervescent bureaucrat gave a passionate recitation of the president’s record on gay rights and a pledge that a second term would bring full equality. And threaded through those remarks was Berry’s personal story. It’s a tale of humanity that has resonated so widely that he’s become a quiet figurehead, not so much fighting a full-throated battle for gay rights as embodying a philosophical shift: Gay relationships, Berry suggests with his presence, are normal, humane, right. An openly gay man can run a federal agency. He’s accepted by conservative veterans.
Berry told the donors in Rehoboth how he made the risky decision at 25 to come out to his devout Catholic parents, his terror that they and God would reject him, his Marine father’s painful decision to ban Berry’s partner from the family’s Rockville home for Sunday dinners. And redemption: When the partner, Tom, was dying of AIDS in 1996, the elder Berry held him in his arms and told him he loved him as a son.
“I heard a cheerleader,” Elkins said after the fundraiser, which reeled in $30,000. “John’s a great ambassador.”