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Lesbian sports maven in Obama Administration

Ellie Schafer has had big roles in women's softball and golf, now Director of the White House Visitors Office

By Cyd Zeigler jr.

Ellie Schafer’s been a member of the Outsports community almost since we started the site. I first got to meet Ellie at the Gay Softball World Series in San Francisco in 2001. She was then, and has been since, a smiling face and a positive, supportive voice for her friends and colleagues. After almost two years working on Barack Obama’s campaign, Ellie, the daughter of former Republican North Dakota governor and Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, joined his Administration two weeks ago. We caught up with her on the phone last week.


Ellie Schafer: I started when I first moved to San Francisco in 1995. I had been involved in sports my whole life. I played softball from middle school on, basketball, track, flag football, you name it. When I moved to San Francisco, I moved for a job and I didn’t know anybody. So I got involved in the San Francisco Gay Softball League to start meeting people. And it became such a huge social network and support network. From the SFGSL I got involved in NAGAAA (North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association). In 2001, I got involved with the World Series, later became the San Francisco NAGAAA rep before NAGAAA and ASANA (Amateur Sports Alliance of North America, the women’s equivalent of NAGAAA) split. I worked with ASANA when they split, helped them develop a long-term plan and try to help ASANA identify themselves and latch onto their identity. In 2006, I started with Pam Dunham and my partner Julie and a couple other people, we started ForeUS golf tour, which is the amateur lesbian golf tour. And I’ve been tournament director and done lots of other things.

OS: Were you working in politics while you were doing all of this?

Schafer: Absolutely. Everyone used to laugh because I’d bring my candidates around and introduce them to people. And I’d always bring voter-registration cards and I’d keep them in my bag. So they’ve always gone hand-in-hand for me.

OS: When did you get involved in politics professionally?
Schafer: I’ve been involved for years. I worked on my first campaign in 1990, licking stamps. I launched my career in 1996 after I moved to San Francisco. And I really got involved in politics there and started my own company. One of the first campaigns I did was the campaign against the 49ers stadium. I took it from there. I’ve done a couple high-profile campaigns in San Francisco.

OS: How did you get involved with the Obama campaign?
Schafer:
I knew some people who had worked with him while he was a Senator on his Hope Fund. They had called and asked me to help very minimally, just kind of coordinate some logistics for his book tour. That led to the announcement tour in Springfield, and it’s been full-time ever since.

OS: In what role?
Schafer:
I worked on the advance staff. The advance staff comes in in advance of the candidate and sets everything up. It’s everything from the logistics of the trip, motorcade, hotel, venue, get all the permits, control the crowd, distribute the tickets, security, the local government. So they just come in and set the trip up.

OS: How welcoming was the Obama campaign for you as a lesbian?
Schafer:
Everybody welcomed me. Half the time I think people were more excited to see my partner Julie than they were to see me.

OS: When did you start with the campaign?
Schafer:
I started working with him in February 2007 at the announcement tour in Springfield.

OS: What is your new role in the Administration?
Schafer:
My current job is Director of the White House Visitors Office. We coordinate everything from the free public tour to State visits. We coordinate the Easter egg roll, Fourth of July at the White House, Christmas at the White House, Tee-ball tournaments at the White House.

OS: Was this particular role something you had actively sought?
Schafer:
It was not. The transition team approached me about it.

OS: But you had been looking for a role in the Administration?
Schafer:
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had just come off two years on the road traveling. It think Julie and I counted about 654 days I was on the road. I was going back and forth whether I wanted to stay in Chicago with Julie or come into the Administration. I, like everybody else, put my resume on Change.gov, and just kind of thought about it. I was named to the transition team, so I got to spend about two-and-a-half months at home. It was tough. I was wondering, do I want to stay in this environment and stay off the road, or go to an environment in Washington DC. So when I was approached with this job, it was such an unbelievable offer and an honor, there was no way I could have turned it down.

OS: So is your partner Julie going to move to DC now?
Schafer:
Julie is a teacher in Chicago, so she’s going to stay there. We’re going to do the long-distance thing. We figure, if we can survive two years on the road with the campaign, this should be a piece of cake. So she’s going to stay there, and she’ll come here on spring break and Christmas break and winter break. And I’ll be going home as much as I can. Of course, we’ve been laughing because there are so many people from Chicago here, everybody knows the flights home, so many people are doing the long-distance thing. So I’ll be escaping and going home as much as I can.

OS: Do you have any stories about the President that you always tell your friends?
Schafer:
I don’t necessarily divulge specifics, and that’s just a personal preference. I’ll tell you that he’s as real as he seems. His whole family is the most down-to-earth, everyday, average family. Sometimes I pinch myself knowing that he’s President of the United States. He’s just a very down-to-earth guy.

Actually, there is one story I could tell you. Julie and I had a small commitment ceremony with our parents and about 75 family and friends on the beach in Del Mar, California, on August 4, 2007. Julie and I were at our reception on the beach in Del Mar and [Barack] was celebrating his birthday with his family in Chicago. He ducked out of his birthday party to call us and congratulate us on our ceremony. Plus, the Obamas got us a really nice gift as well. After seeing his schedule and realizing the enormity of running for President, we felt so honored that he took time out of his day to congratulate us. The reality is he is just a down to earth really nice guy. Julie had not met him yet and right after our ceremony, Julie was at a function in Chicago and they were introduced and he gave her a hug and congratulated her, and us. It was pretty darn cool!

OS: With your new job, is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to accomplishing?
Schafer:
First of all, it’s so unbelievable to be there, working at the White House. I still get choked up walking through the gates every day. I really think continuing the tradition of the Obama campaign, the open and transparent government. Getting in there and opening some of these events, changing the perception of the White House and opening it back up and making it the people’s house. And that’s one of the things I’m really excited about. My first big event is the Easter egg roll, which brings about 25,000 people to the South Lawn of the White House. It’s just very exciting, just learning the ropes about it right now, how we can make it more accessible, more open, more enjoyable experience for them.

OS: Will LGBT families be welcome at the Easter egg roll?
Schafer:
Every family is welcome at the Easter egg roll.

OS: Will you be playing sports while you’re there in DC?
Schafer: I have to reach out to the DC softball league. I’m actually going to the ASANA meetings in Madison this month, and I’m going to reach out to the DC folks and try to get on a team and get involved here as much as I can. It’s a little unclear if I can stay on in my advisory role with ASANA, but with all the ethics guidelines that President Obama has put in place, everyone has been asked to resign their positions so there are no conflicts of interest. So I need to double-check to see if I can stay on or not. But I’ll definitely be able to go to Madison and touch base. I’ve always found that with softball and golf and any of the other organized sports I’ve been involved in, it’s just so relaxing and so supportive, and it’s a nice way to get away from the hustle and bustle. Just take an hour and clear your head and play a softball game and then head back to work if you need to. I think I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t join a team, so I think it might be one of those things that keeps you grounded and healthy out here.

I will tell you that I absolutely love hanging out with my softball buddies. I hang out and socialize with them every chance I get. They definitely keep me grounded. Outsports: First, how long have you been active in the gay-sports world?