Roberta Achtenberg, California, 1990


During Roberta Achtenberg’s Presidential Appointment confirmation hearings in the US Senate, Senator Jesse Helms refused to vote for “that damned lesbian.” She became the first openly homosexual person to be confirmed as a Presidential Appointee. The story is told in Brave Journeys: Profiles in Gay and Lesbian Courage, co-authored by David Mixner and Dennis Bailey.

Roberta Achtenberg

Born July 20, 1950

Board of Supervisors

San Francisco, California

Career Overview

Elected November 1990

Resigned in 1993 to become a Presidential Appointee as Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development



Interview with Roberta Achtenberg for Out and Elected in the USA

Note: This interview was conducted four days before the November 2000 elections.

Q: Now that you are back in the private sector, what are you doing now, and, any general reflections on the public work you’ve done?

A: Well, I loved being a County Supervisor, and I love the challenge to deal, locally, with the issues that are of greatest concern. I mean urban issues are my passion. Trying to make our cities work. And trying to work on ways of providing opportunity for low income people – to educate themselves and to rise and achieve economic security for their families. And housing and neighborhood-building and related issues are things that I care most about, which is why I became county supervisor, which is why I asked the President for an appointment to HUD, which is why I work now for the Chamber of Commerce developing their public policy program. The two chief programs of which are our San Francisco Works program, which is our business/community led welfare-to-work program that’s among the most successful welfare-to-work programs in the nation. And the San Francisco School to Career Partnership where we work with the public schools to help them develop career pathways for high-school students to gain positive experiences in the private sector workplace and to try and demonstrate the relevance of staying in school, attaining a higher skill level, and the way in which that leads to greater success in the workplace. For kids who are college bound and for kids who aren’t. That understanding the relationship between the things that you can learn in school and ways that you can be productive in your work life – that these are very helpful things for young people to learn and there’s an important role that the business community can play in helping educators demonstrate the relevance to young people of attaining an education.

So, those are the issues I get to work on now. I’m a trustee of the California university system; I was appointed by Grey Davis about a year ago. So, I get to work directly on the higher education challenges for California. The state university system is 23 campuses. It’s the largest university system in the country; it is also the most diverse. More than 50 percent of our students are students of color, more than 50 percent are women, the average age of one of our students is 26 years plus, and so many of our students are the first people in their family to go to college. So that’s system couldn’t be more important to the success of the, sort of, “cultural diversity” experiment that is California, and allows me to work – again, even as my day job allows me – to continue to work making a contribution in the public arena, which I care about very much. So, that is what I am doing now.

Q: What is your take on what Clinton’s impact has been on the GLBT community? If there is a legacy there, what would you say is the significance of his having become elected?

A: Clinton’s personal affection for people who are gay and lesbian and the public support offered by Clinton and his administration for many issues that are of concern to the community… You know, this is the first time in history that first, a presidential candidate, and then a President of the United States, has been as embracing of this community as he has. He issued a number of executive orders – every secretary in his cabinet issued orders – to eradicate discrimination in federal employment. He has appointed more than two hundred people to his administration who are gay or lesbian and are identified publicly as such, and that’s very significant. And mostly, he’s just, you know, given us the opportunity to serve just like other people and rise or fall on our own merits.

I think that people who don’t remember when it was any other way may not understand how extraordinary this is. It’s my fond hope that we won’t be going back to the way it use to be (laughing). Or else people would get a rude reminder of an era that I hope is gone for good.