Reversing a longstanding policy that effectively barred openly gay men and lesbians from its ranks, the FBI pledged Friday not to discriminate against applicants and employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or conduct.
The change in policy, heralded as a major victory by gay rights advocates, was announced as part of an agreement to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by former FBI Agent Frank Buttino, who was fired after his supervisors received an anonymous letter informing them that he is gay.
While not admitting wrongdoing, the FBI agreed to adopt guidelines barring discrimination against homosexuals and to hire a lesbian applicant who was rejected for a job in 1987, allegedly because of her sexual orientation.
The settlement must still be approved by Assistant Atty. Gen. Frank Hunger and U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong, who was hearing Buttino’s case. But representatives of both sides said they consider it a certainty, noting that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno last week ordered all branches of the Justice Department to cease discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Spokesman Joe Krovisky said the Justice Department is “satisfied with the proposed settlement and finds it consistent” with Reno’s directive.
Buttino, an honored 20-year veteran of the FBI, called the agreement “a victory for all Americans” and said it would give hope to the numerous homosexuals who have contacted him and told their stories of fear and discrimination.
“I think this settlement is reflective of a new attitude in Washington,” said Buttino, 48, who lives in San Diego. “It’s a credit to the (Clinton) Administration that they didn’t fight us all the way.”
Buttino had initially sought reinstatement to his job. He said he decided instead “to move on to a new chapter of my life,” and accepted an undisclosed sum of money in the settlement, part of which will be distributed as a government pension. The settlement also provides Buttino with a statement from the FBI saying that he “consistently received excellent or outstanding performance evaluations” and never disclosed classified information.
Gay rights advocates viewed Buttino’s case as a critical front in their battle to end workplace discrimination.
Evan Woolfson, a senior staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, said the policy change means gay men and lesbians in the FBI and other branches of government “can now concentrate on doing their jobs without worrying about watching their backs.”
Woolfson added, however, that his group will closely monitor the FBI’s performance to ensure that it heeds the spirit of both the settlement and Reno’s order. “It’s asignificant victory,” he said, “but the devil will be in the details and we’ll be watching them.”
Michael Fitzgerald, the Los Angeles attorney who argued Buttino’s case, expressed confidence that the good faith exhibited so far by the Justice Department would result in regulations ending discrimination. He also predicted that the FBI’s action would influence policies in other government and law enforcement agencies.
“This is very important because the FBI has great prestige and is seen as the premier federal law enforcement agency,” Fitzgerald said. “The fact that the FBI is now willing to have openly gay employees will send a very powerful message.”
Buttino, an agent whose duties included undercover, foreign counterintelligence and terrorism investigations, was fired in 1990. The FBI said it dismissed him not because he was gay but because he lied under oath and refused to aid an investigation into the anonymous note that revealed he is a homosexual. Buttino called such reasons a pretext for discrimination.
In court papers, the FBI conceded that although its policies have not strictly forbidden the hiring of homosexuals, applicants who are not heterosexual have a “significantly more difficult” time getting jobs. In his opening statement at the trial, a lawyer for the FBI argued that an agent who concealed that he was gay might be vulnerable to blackmail.
Dana Tillson, 32, applied for an FBI job in 1987. In court testimony, she said she got high marks and received encouragement until a background investigation discovered she is a lesbian.
Under the settlement, Tillson, who is now a private investigator, will be invited to resubmit an application and will be given a place in the next incoming class of FBI agents unless a background check finds a problem.
The plaintiffs, meanwhile, agreed to two concessions. First, Buttino dropped his demand that he be rehired. Second, the FBI will be allowed to carry out its new policy without the pressure of a court injunction, which Buttino initially sought.
Times staff writer James Bornemeier in Washington contributed to this story.