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Achtenberg, Roberta (b. 1950)  
 
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American activist and politician Roberta Achtenberg has been a strong advocate for civil rights, especially those of gays and lesbians. In 1993 she became the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the United States Senate for a major political post, Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Achtenberg's parents both immigrated to the United States, her father from the Soviet Union and her mother from Quebec. The Achtenbergs owned and ran a neighborhood grocery store in Los Angeles, where Roberta Achtenberg was born on July 20, 1950.

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Education and Marriage

Although neither of Achtenberg's parents had attended high school, they valued education and resolved that their four children would go to college.

Achtenberg excelled at school and dreamed of being a lawyer. She began her college education at UCLA in order to be near her father, who was incapacitated by a stroke. After his death Achtenberg transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. While there, she met and married David Chavkin, a law student.

After graduating from Berkeley, Achtenberg began her own law studies at Hastings Law School in San Francisco. When her husband received a prestigious fellowship that took him to Salt Lake City, Utah, Achtenberg accompanied him and continued her studies at the law school of the University of Utah.

At the conclusion of his fellowship Chavkin returned to San Francisco, while Achtenberg remained in Utah to finish her law degree.

Divorce and the Beginnings of Social Activism

During the separation from her husband, Achtenberg found herself attracted to a woman. She began reading about homosexuality but did not discuss her feelings with anyone.

Achtenberg reunited with her husband after her graduation, but within two years the couple agreed to an amicable divorce. Thereafter, Achtenberg came out to her family but did not immediately reveal her sexual orientation publicly, fearing that it might be harmful to her career as a lawyer and educator.

At the same time, she was becoming increasingly aware of the disadvantage at which gays and lesbians were often placed under the law on a wide variety of issues, including housing, employment, adoption, and privacy rights.

Achtenberg joined the National Lawyers Guild in 1978 and began working on its Anti-Sexism Committee, which was creating a manual to help attorneys represent their gay and lesbian clients. The project eventually resulted in a wide-ranging treatise, Sexual Orientation and the Law (1985), which Achtenberg edited.

Through her work with groups such as the Lesbian Rights Project and the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, Achtenberg gained a reputation as an activist for gay rights.

Relationship with Mary Morgan

In 1979 Achtenberg met Mary Morgan, a prominent lesbian attorney known in particular for her expertise in representing lesbian mothers in custody cases. In 1981, Morgan was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to a judgeship in the San Francisco Municipal Court.

The two lawyers became committed partners in 1982. Four years later Morgan gave birth to their son, Benjamin Alexander Morgan Achtenberg, whom Achtenberg legally adopted.

Political Career

Achtenberg made her first foray into electoral politics with a run for the California State Assembly in 1988. She lost to an experienced and better-known opponent, but the election was closer than expected.

The following year Achtenberg entered the race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Although five at-large seats were open, the press tried to portray Achtenberg and Carole Migden, another lesbian candidate, as opponents for the same slot, on the assumption that voters would not elect two lesbians to the Board. As it turned out, however, they did.

As a supervisor, Achtenberg worked to better the lives of all her constituents, taking on such varied issues as tenants' rights, wheelchair access, the right of small businesses to compete for city contracts, and the provision of shelters for victims of domestic violence.

National Attention

Her role as a lesbian elected official brought her national attention. She received letters from gays and lesbians around the country and also from parents of gay children who found hope in her success. "The ability to be in public life has been enormously positive to our movement, to our people," said Achtenberg, "and being able to contribute has been very gratifying."

Another result of her national visibility was that contenders for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination sought her endorsement early on. After Virginia Apuzzo, a lesbian activist and a member of the administration of New York Governor Mario Cuomo, approached Achtenberg and described Cuomo's pro-gay record, Achtenberg agreed to support him. Soon, however, she heard from members of the campaign of then little-known Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Achtenberg was impressed by Clinton, but having pledged to support Cuomo, explained that she could only endorse Clinton if Cuomo withdrew from the race.

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