Despite culture change, gay members of Congress still rare

Ian Kullgren

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON – As a Rhode Island state representative, Rep. David Cicilline never tried to hide that he was gay. So when a newspaper columnist asked him about it during his first run for Congress in 2002, he answered honestly.

But the paper wouldn’t print it, its managing editor told Cicilline, unless he gave them explicit permission – the same policy the media often uses for victims of rape, assault and similar crimes. They were, it seemed to him, suggesting he should be ashamed.

Cicilline dropped out of the congressional race and launched a successful bid for mayor of Providence. When the Democrat ran for the House again in 2010, the fact that he was gay rarely came up – it just wasn’t a big deal, unlike eight years earlier. Even the people who had supported his announcement before didn’t make a fuss about it.

“I think people thought it was much more courageous than it was,” he said, comparing being gay to any other biographical trait. “It’s not courageous to acknowledge you have brown hair or you’re Italian.”

Even as politicians and the public are warming to the idea of same-sex marriage, gay elected officials rarely ascend to the hallowed halls of the Capitol. Cicilline is part of a small crowd – there are seven openly gay or bisexual members in the 113th Congress, three more than the last.

And they arrived at an interesting time. The Supreme Court cases about the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop 8 amendment have stirred a dialogue about equality rights under the law. But even if the court strikes them down, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender rights leaders acknowledge equal representation likely will take decades to follow.

LGBT leaders enjoyed some key victories in November. They have the first bisexual member in the House, Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

At an annual LGBT Victory Fund brunch Sunday, Baldwin did not revel in her role as the gay community’s newest hero. Instead, she offered a sobering take: “Changing minds and changing laws are related, but they’re not the same thing … our fight for equality doesn’t end with a president’s signature or a Supreme Court decision.”

Gay and bisexual politicians rarely run for Congress, let alone win. Cicilline was one of only six serious LGBT candidates in 2010, according to the LGBT Victory Fund, which sponsors candidates for all levels of government. The fund hasn’t released its 2012 study, although president Chuck Wolfe said the group’s overall success rate was about 68 percent.

More candidates ran for seats in state legislatures. In 2010, eight LGBT candidates ran for the California state legislature, which has 120 seats. Five won.

It was a similar story in New York, where seven ran for the state legislature out of 212 possible seats. As in California, five candidates won, and the legislature went on to legalize same-sex marriage seven months later.

It is an example of the mindset leaders are trying to push: to codify gay rights in the law, you need to make sure gay people are involved with writing it.

“When I was first elected to local office, there were only a couple dozen worldwide,” Baldwin, who began her career as a county supervisor in 1986, said in an interview. “With the growth of the Victory Fund and other organizations, you’re numbering in the hundreds, and more needs to be done.”

While equality under the law can be handed down swiftly by the courts, elections offer no guarantees, and history shows it can take decades for groups such as women and blacks to make even modest gains.

Realities of the election cycle can make it hard for any candidate to break through. Incumbents tend to have an advantage, and aspiring candidates often have no choice but to wait for them to retire or for district lines to be redrawn.

That was the case for Sinema, who ran in a newly sketched district that added a seat for Arizona, and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a freshman who was elected to the state’s new 41st district after two previous attempts in 1992 and 1994.

But Takano insists it was more than logistics. Conservative ministers attacked him the last time around for being gay – Takano was surprised when his 2012 pollsters had data showing that any overt attack would backfire.

“They said no, not even here in this day and age could someone use that tactic without it having a downside,” Takano said. “This is the breakthrough that I think needs to be paid attention to a little more – is that we’re succeeding in suburban enclaves.”

The 113th Congress is the most diverse in history, but the numbers are nowhere near proportional.  Ninety-seven years after Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to serve in  Congress, women hold 86 out of 435 seats. Just one fifth of Senate seats are held by women, and only 44 have ever been senators.

There are 42 black members of the House and, for the first time, two black senators serving at once. The two senators, Mo Cowan, D-Mass., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., were appointed to fill vacancies.

But that is still not many. In perspective, the black population of Congress is about 8 percent, compared to the 13 percent of the U.S. population that is black, according to the Census Bureau.

The numbers of gays and bisexuals, however, aren’t as easily measured or defined. The census does not keep track of sexual orientation, and there’s not always clear line between who is out and who isn’t, making it nearly impossible to predict how many residents are gay.

Wolfe also cited a grim reason for the low numbers of candidates – the AIDS epidemic, which wiped out an almost an entire generation of gay leaders.

“I could probably have twice the potential candidates,” Wolfe said.

Still, the handful of gay and bisexual members in Congress are evidence that the presence of gay and bisexual members has grown more normal since 1983, when Gerry Studds became the first openly gay congressman in history. Studds’ coming-out story is synonymous with scandal – he was outed when an affair with a congressional page became public. He was censured by the House, but overcame it and won re-election.

Now, gay candidates have a support network. And like any political movement, it comes down to cash.

The Human Rights Campaign spent more than $4 million lobbying and funding candidates, and is listed by the Center for Responsive Politics as being among the top 140 biggest overall donors to federal elections since 1990.

The Victory Fund raised more than $43,000 for Baldwin’s campaign through a partnership with the pro-choice political action committee EMILY’s List.

It also directly gave $10,000 to Baldwin’s campaign and $2,500 to the Wisconsin Democratic Party, according to federal campaign finance reports. The arsenal helped clear the primary field, and she went on to beat Republican former governor Tommy Thompson with 51 percent of the vote.

The fund gave $10,000 each to five other gay or bisexual candidates, including Rep. Mark Pocan, who filled Baldwin’s empty seat in Wisconsin’s 2nd District.

At an LGBT Victory Fund brunch Sunday, more than 1,000 LGBT leaders celebrated at the Victory Fund’s annual brunch, polishing off bottomless bottles of champagne in Washington’s largest ballroom. Names of major donors such as AT&T and Southwest Airlines flashed across massive video projections.

Guests hovered near Takano, salivating at the thought of a handshake, or perhaps even a business card exchange.

“I tell everybody: if Riverside County can be on the right side of history and elect the first openly gay member of Congress from the state of California, the Supreme Court could also be on the right side of history,” Takano said. “You know, nothing is impossible.”

Reach Reporter Ian Kullgren at Ian.Kullgren@Shns.com or 202-326-2143. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.  

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