Queering Congress

(AP Photo/Russel A. Daniels)

Tammy Baldwin, center, and Jared Polis, right, both openly gay members of Congress, answer questions from Jonathan Capehart, left, at the International Gay & Lesbian Leadership Conference in San Francisco, Saturday, December 5, 2009. Both spoke optimistically about key legislative agenda items sought by LGBT advocates.

When California teacher Mark Takano ran for Congress 15 years ago, he lost to Republican challenger Ken Calvert by a scant 519 votes. Two years later, things looked more promising. Police had caught Calvert with a prostitute; Takano should have easily clinched a win. But just three months before the election, Ray Haynes—a Calvert supporter in the state assembly—outed Takano as gay.

"I said quite clearly I personally don't want a homosexual representing me in Congress," Haynes said at the time.

Takano's opponents sent a late mailer, which asked voters in pink letters to consider whether Takano should be "A Congressman for Riverside … or San Francisco?" He lost again, by a much wider margin than his first run.

But what once sunk his campaign could prove to be a boon as Takano runs for the U.S. House again next year. "I think the atmosphere has changed fairly dramatically," Takano says. "A former regional director of the Democratic Party here [told me], 'Your sexual orientation back in the early '90s was maybe a liability, but now it's probably an asset.'"

But even if Takano manages to win the seat next November, he'll be joining a small handful of national LGBT representatives whose numbers have not grown in step with greater acceptance of homosexuality.

Liberal champion and openly gay congressman Barney Frank announced earlier this week that he wouldn't be seeking re-election next year. The ranking member and former chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank is among the most powerful members of Congress and a vocal progressive presence championing economic justice. But as many have noted, the country is also losing its most powerful and prominent gay politician.

In 1987—the height of the AIDS crisis and a time where anti-LGBT bigotry was even more common than it is now—Frank became the first sitting member of Congress to out himself. Acceptance for LGBT individuals has grown since he did so, but that has yet to translate into a significant uptick in the number of publicly gay or lesbian politicians. Including Frank, there are just four members of the House—all Democrats—who currently identify as gay or lesbian. There are none in the Senate.

Despite the growing importance of LGBT issues on the Democratic platform—two rumored contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, have been fierce advocates for marriage equality—the rank of elected officials will likely change little next year. "If you were to think of this in terms of representative democracy, we are not there yet," says Denis Dison of The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group that supports LGBT candidates at all levels of government. "We should have maybe 30 members of the House. But [the underrepresentation] is also true of people of color, of women. The LGBT community is fairly new to this mission we have undertaken. It wasn't very long ago that people would not have been able to run."

The Senate barrier may be broken if Tammy Baldwin wins the open seat to replace retiring Herb Kohl in Wisconsin. Baldwin is the apparent favorite to win the Democratic primary, but will face a tougher battle in the general election, in which the latest polls have her trailing Republican candidates by a slight margin. However, Baldwin is relinquishing her House seat whether she wins or loses the Senate race, further thinning the ranks of out members in the House.

Democrats have few replacements waiting in the wings. The Victory Fund has endorsed just three House candidates for the 2012 election. In addition to Takano in California, they've endorsed Mark Pocan in Wisconsin to fill Baldwin's vacated congressional seat, and Marko Liias in Washington state. On the upside, at least a few of them should win those campaigns. Takano faces no primary challenge, and the newly redrawn California district where he is running tends to favor Democrats (voters there went for Barack Obama by a 15 percent margin in 2008). Pocan doesn't have the same clear path to replace Baldwin, but if he gets past the Democratic primary, he should easily win the liberal district. Liias is also running for a vacant seat in a liberal district, but he faces stiffer competition in a crowded primary of state representatives vying for the nomination and the possibility that Representative Dennis Kuchinich will move and run in the district after he is redistricted out of his Ohio seat.

But even if all the LGBT candidates win, the numbers will merely hold steady. With Frank and Baldwin out of the picture, Colorado Representative Jared Polis will be the most senior LGBT representative in Congress, and he was just elected to his first term in 2008. "To actually step back at a time like this would be very disappointing," Pocan says. "If we represent a significant portion of the population—perhaps up to 10 percent—and we represent less than 1 percent of a Congress, that doesn't show a very representative sampling of society. I would hate for LGBT elected officials to be the same as non-millionaires in the Senate, where you're a rarity."

Progress across the rest of the federal government has also been slow. The first openly gay U.S. federal judge wasn't appointed to the bench until this past July. There has never been an LGBT cabinet official, and it's still news when a Democratic presidential contender reveals support for marriage equality. The lack of LGBT representation at the federal level has likely played a role in the failure of the Obama presidency to further civil liberties. The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was certainly a major achievement, but it is the only major legislative success after the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban discrimination against gay people in housing and employment, stalled over the inclusion of transgender individuals, and no meaningful efforts were taken to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) when Democrats controlled both sides of Congress.

LGBT politicians have had far greater success at local levels. A number of major cities have elected out mayors, including Houston—the fourth largest city in country—where openly gay Annise Parker has won two terms as mayor. Those successes clear a path for representation at the federal level.

"I think what you find is that there's almost a pipeline to that [federal] level. Unless you're a self-funded candidate, generally people come from another level of government. Tammy Baldwin was on our county board, got elected to the legislature [before] she got elected to Congress, and now she's running for U.S. Senate," Pocan says about the member of Congress he hopes to replace. "Because there is so often that path, unless you have people in the pipeline to get to that federal level, it takes awhile -- you're going to lag behind where public opinion is moving."

If Pocan's right, that pipeline should soon begin to propel a new class of LGBT politicians to the national stage. But it won't be enough for Democratic political operatives to rest on their laurels and just trust that LGBT politicians will magically appear. If the party truly wishes to represent the advancement of civil rights—and capture a majority of the young voters who are passionate on the issue—they need to recruit more diverse candidates.

"I think this is the moment -- in the next ten years, we'll see changes," Takano says. "I don't see it as a lag -- the country is ready for change, and it's waiting to happen."

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