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social sciences

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Achtenberg, Roberta (b. 1950)  
page: 1  2  

Once Cuomo decided not to run, Achtenberg launched herself enthusiastically into the Clinton campaign, helping to organize fund-raisers and other events.

Achtenberg was a member of the committee drafting the Democratic Party's platform, and she addressed the national convention in defense of the document. In introducing herself to the delegates, she proudly identified herself as a lesbian, a mother, and a Jew.

Sponsor Message.

Nomination to HUD and the Confirmation Fight

As President-elect Clinton assembled his cabinet, he invited Achtenberg to be Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Achtenberg would be the first openly gay person to receive Senate confirmation for an administration post.

The process was long and grueling. Conservative Christian groups lobbied against her, and a number of conservative Senators attempted to block her appointment.

Senator Jesse Helms spearheaded the opposition, making numerous public comments against Achtenberg, whom he described as a "damn lesbian," an "intolerant radical," and a "mean person" who "tried to bully the Boy Scouts." Immediately before the vote on confirmation Helms warned Achtenberg's supporters that "if any member of this Senate thinks this vote will go unnoticed by their constituents back home, they may find out otherwise" when they ran for reelection.

Achtenberg and the Boy Scouts of America

The Senate debate included many allusions to what opponents called Achtenberg's "vendetta" against the Boy Scouts, prompting San Francisco Chronicle reporter April Lynch to write, "The Boy Scouts issue was brought up so often that some tourists sitting in the Senate visitors gallery became confused as to whether they were hearing debate on the Scouts or a HUD nomination."

Achtenberg had been one of over fifty members of the board of directors of the United Way in San Francisco who voted unanimously not to give funds to the Boy Scouts because of their discriminatory policy against gay and bisexual boys.

The Christian Action Network sent all Senators a tape of Achtenberg and Morgan riding in the 1992 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. The clip included a brief embrace by the couple. Helms referred to this as evidence of Achtenberg's "insane assault on family values" and castigated her for "demanding that society accept as normal a lifestyle that most of the world's major religions consider immoral and which the average American voter instinctively finds repulsive."

The much-admired Senator Claiborne Pell was among those to speak in support of Achtenberg's confirmation, urging colleagues to use "simple standards of fairness and equal treatment" when considering the nominee. In the course of his remarks he also mentioned that his daughter, Julia Pell, was a lesbian and that he would not want her "barred from a government job because of her orientation."


After Achtenberg's testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the vigorous efforts of her proponents, especially Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and Donald Riegle of Michigan, the full Senate confirmed her nomination by a vote of 58 to 31.

To keep the family together, Morgan resigned her judgeship in California and moved to Washington, D.C. with Achtenberg and their son.

Achievements at HUD

As Assistant Secretary at HUD, Achtenberg worked on such issues as fairness in mortgage lending and home insurance, and on finding housing for thousands of low-income citizens displaced by the 1994 earthquake in California.

Among her proudest achievements was the integration of previously all-white Vidor, Texas. With HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, Achtenberg developed a public housing project for the city and worked with community leaders to ensure successful and peaceful integration despite the opposition of the Ku Klux Klan. When construction was complete, Achtenberg went to Vidor and helped the new tenants move in.

Return to California

Achtenberg left HUD in 1995 to run in the primary for mayor of San Francisco. Given little chance at the outset, she gained considerable support but eventually lost by a narrow margin.

She briefly went back to Washington to serve as a Senior Advisor to Cisneros, but in 1996 she and her family returned to California. Achtenberg accepted a position with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, where she was Senior Vice President for Public Policy until 2005.

In 2000, Achtenberg was appointed to the Board of Trustees of California State University by Governor Gray Davis. She became chair of the Board in May 2006.

She also serves as a director of the Bank of San Francisco and the San Francisco-based software company, Andrew J. Wong, Inc.

On January 26, 2011, President Obama named Achtenberg to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.


For her commitment to gay and lesbian rights, Achtenberg has received a GLAAD Visibility Award and a Founders Award from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, among other honors.

She was also named one of the "50 Most Influential Businesswomen in the Bay Area" in 1997.

Linda Rapp

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Farrell, John Aloysius. "Senators Hear Pell Talk of Gay Daughter." Boston Globe (May 22, 1993): 3.

Lynch, April. "Achtenberg Rebuts Critics—Says She's Religious, Not Mean." San Francisco Chronicle (May 27, 1993): A6.

_____. "Senate Confirms Achtenberg." San Francisco Chronicle (May 25, 1993): A1.

_____, and Carolyn Lochhead. "Helms Says He's Determined to Keep Achtenberg out of HUD." San Francisco Chronicle (May 8, 1993): A3.

Mixner, David, and Dennis Bailey. "Roberta Achtenberg: A 'Justice Thing.'" Brave Journeys: Profiles in Gay and Lesbian Courage. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. 169-218.

National Lawyers Guild Anti-Sexism Committee of San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. Sexual Orientation and the Law. Roberta Achtenberg, ed. New York: Clark Boardman Company, Ltd., 1985.

Phillips, Leslie. "Lesbian Confirmed for No. 2 HUD Post." USA Today (May 25, 1993): 10A.

Puga, Ana. "Achtenberg Is Confirmed for HUD Post; Senators Argue over Lesbianism." Boston Globe (May 25, 1993): 3.

Walsh, Diana, and Carol Ness. "Supporters Seek Silver Lining in Achtenberg Loss." San Francisco Examiner (November 8, 1995): A10.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Achtenberg, Roberta  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated January 28, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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