“Being first sucks.” That’s what Amanda Simpson, one of the country’s first two openly transgender presidential appointees, told ABC News. “I’d rather not be the first, but someone has to be first.”
Amanda Simpson started two weeks ago at the Department of Commerce, where her job will be to keep track of the export of American military technology. Dylan Orr, who is also openly transgender, was recently appointed to a lower-level job in the Department of Labor, but Simpson is apparently the highest-level transgender executive official ever. A former test pilot, Simpson holds degrees in physics, engineering, and business, has worked in the aerospace and defense industry for thirty years, and is eminently qualified for her position. Nevertheless, the Christian group Focus on the Family released a statement accusing President Obama of appointing her as “payback to his far-left base for their political support.” And Peter LaBarbera, president of an anti-gay group called Americans for Truthasked if there was going “to be a transgender quota now in the Obama administration?”
It may be that Amanda Simpson’s transgender status was a factor in her appointment. President Obama has angered many in the LGBT community—the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community—by continuing to support the Defense of Marriage Act and by going back on his promise to change the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. But with her qualifications, if Simpson had been born biologically female, her appointment wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. It’s probably not possible to answer the hypothetical question of who would have been appointed if the process were genuinely blind to her gender status. But it is also ridiculous to imagine that being transgender is, on balance, an advantage. With only two openly transgender people ever appointed to the executive branch, transpeople are far from overrepresented in the federal government. And it would have been easy to appoint someone else and avoid controversy.
The reaction to Simpson’s appointment mirrors the reaction to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Like Simpson, Sotomayor, then a highly-regarded appeals court judge—who had not only graduated with highest honors from Princeton but had also been president of the Yale Law Review—was eminently qualified for the job. But many conservatives claimed she was, in Pat Buchanan’s words, “an affirmative action appointment.” There’s no question, of course, that the fact that she would be the first Hispanic justice—and might increase the appeal of Democrats to crucial Hispanic voters—was a factor in her favor. But at the same time there were few objections to the fact that the previous three appointees—Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Justice Samuel Alito—were white men. And, of course, six of the nine justices are white men, and it’s surely easier for a white man to rise to the court. The fact is that the appointment of a straight, white male is rarely much of an issue, but the appointment of anyone belonging to a minority—whether a racial or a sexual minority—is almost always an issue. The knee-jerk assumption that the only reason a member of a minority group would be hired is for affirmative action reasons makes it difficult for people like Simpson and Sotomayor to evaluated on the basis of their qualifications.
None of this is fair to Simpson, who has made it clear that she would prefer that she didn’t have to blaze any trails. She is in a sense no different from anyone else who is trying to find meaningful work in her chosen career. But because there haven’t been any openly transgender executive officials before, the decision to appoint her was inevitably about more than her qualifications—it was also an implicit affirmation of the right of people like her to do the same work as anyone else. Ultimately, though, the story is not that Simpson was hired because she is transgender, but, as Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equalityput it, “that finally we have an administration for which that’s not a deal breaker.”