LGBT Americans: Act Now to Prevent Painful Tea Party Hangover

Without a sustained push by every element of the broad progressive coalition, including LGBT Americans, this fall's elections could spell a catastrophic reversal of fortune for LGBT equality on the national scene.
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Many LGBT Americans who worked very hard and invested heavily to elect President Obama and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are now disappointed and disillusioned by the lack of progress on some key political goals. The recent and, I hope, just temporarily failed effort to pass a legislative repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the Senate was also a bitter reminder that we have also failed to get the Employment Non Discrimination Act passed into law, even though protecting LGBT people against job discrimination and allowing gay and lesbian members of the armed forces to serve openly are both supported by substantial majorities of the American people.

Frustration and anger on the part of LGBT voters and their allies are understandable. Democratic leaders should be held accountable for their part in failing to make good on some of these promises. Early in this administration I called on President Obama to bring more focused leadership to these issues.

But advocates for equality cannot let their anger -- no matter how legitimate -- make us lose sight of the bigger picture, which is a surge of particularly reactionary anti-equality candidates running for both the House and Senate. It is important to go into this election fully informed with our eyes wide open.

We are only a few weeks away from elections that could make even the potential for progress feel like a distant memory, and could find us scrambling to preserve hard-won gains. Without a sustained push by every element of the broad progressive coalition, including LGBT Americans, this fall's elections could spell a catastrophic reversal of fortune for LGBT equality on the national scene and on many of the issues that we care about.

Which brings us to the real reason we were not able to make more progress than we have. We might disagree vehemently with the priorities or legislative strategies employed by our allies or wish they had more courage. But they are not our enemies.

Congressional Republicans decided early in the administration that their strategic political interests were best served by working to undermine the administration's effectiveness. Senate Republicans have used every obstructionist tool in the Senate rules to delay or block progress to an unprecedented degree. It's true, and deeply frustrating, that they were aided and abetted in some cases by more conservative Democrats; but the solution is not to walk away claiming there is no difference between the parties. It's to work harder to support those who have stood with us and to be fully informed about the extremely damaging alternative.

There will never be consensus on how much more could or should have been accomplished over the past two years given the huge problems facing the nation and given the Republicans' decision to wage scorched-earth, no-compromise warfare against the Obama administration, but can't we all agree on how much worse things could be?

You can look back and imagine how differently a McCain-Palin administration would have been for the nation and for LGBT Americans. Instead of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan we would have two additional far-right Supreme Court justices who believe gay Americans are unworthy of legal equality sealing the fate of equal rights for at least another generation. And our commander-in-chief would be the man who has become the single most aggressive opponent to ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

But even more importantly, we must look forward at the kind of candidates who could be moving en masse into positions of power in Congress.

Most reports suggest that Tea Partiers are mainly concerned about government spending. LGBT Americans must not take any solace in the false notion that gays have nothing to fear from this movement because it is supposedly concerned only with taxes and deficits and not social issues. Even if true of some movement leaders, this is electorally irrelevant. What matters is that the candidates being backed by the Tea Party movement -- and GOP congressional candidates generally -- share the Religious Right's hostility toward legal equality for LGBT Americans. We shouldn't be fooled by selective libertarianism. Some of the crop of Republicans running for Congress this fall may lean libertarian when it comes to taxes and spending, but they are eager to use the power of the government to squelch LGBT equality. Kentucky's Rand Paul was a proud doctrinaire libertarian when denouncing the Civil Rights Act as intrusive, but is happy to support strong government intervention in regulating the lives of gay Americans.

South Carolina's Sen. Jim DeMint, the role model and funder for many of these candidates, is as much a hero to the Religious Right as to fiscal conservatives. On gay rights issues, Sen. DeMint and the candidates he is hoping to make his colleagues represent a throwback in attitudes to decades ago. DeMint has said that gay teachers should not be permitted in public schools. He believes no state should be allowed to recognize the freedom to marry. He goes on Religious Right talk radio to denounce "the government legitimizing and promoting behavior that we have always considered wrong." He actively promoted Religious Right lies about hate crimes legislation, which he said "perverts our justice system" and "would lead to the criminalization of biblical truth as 'hate speech.'

Imagine a Senate in which DeMint is a power broker with a new caucus of six or eight or ten colleagues who are pledged to denying legal equality to LGBT people and who would use every tool at their disposal to prevent even the slightest forward progress.

All the Republican Senate candidates oppose marriage equality and some, including Florida's Marco Rubio and Pennsylvania's Jim Toomey, call for a federal constitutional amendment that would deny any state from recognizing the freedom to marry. Nearly all oppose repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which they believe, in the words of Rand Paul, has "worked relatively well." Missouri's Roy Blunt, North Carolina's Richard Burr, and Ohio's Rob Portman have voted to ban gay couples in Washington, DC from adopting children. Blunt spreads the Religious Right's lies about ENDA, claiming that it would put at risk a person who had a Bible at their cubicle at work. Washington's Dino Rossi not only opposes giving same-sex couples the freedom to marry, but also attempted to prevent same-sex partners of state employees from receiving health care benefits. Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell has complained about those who "steal" the power and beauty of the word "gay," comparing the use of that term to Adolf Hitler's propaganda strategies.

This is the reality of the Republican Party's candidates on the ballot this fall. Don't be distracted by all the media attention generated by a few Republican strategists who are belatedly and famously embracing marriage equality. Their fundraising on behalf of legal efforts doesn't change the Election Day reality: candidates backed by the Tea Party movement and its billionaire funders may talk more about taxes and the deficit than about social issues, but the candidates who are hoping to ride the Tea Party wave into Washington are also hard-right social conservatives, not only on LGBT equality, but on other important issues like a woman's right to choose and the separation of church and state.

We also should not forget that along with high-profile disappointments, there has been significant progress during the past two years. A federal hate crimes bill has been signed into law. We have a process -- if deeply flawed and sometimes offensive -- that is moving toward the president's repeatedly expressed goal of allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the armed forces. Same-sex partners must be given visitation rights in virtually every hospital in the U.S. LGBT people who work in the civil service and foreign service have new legal protections. We have a number of U.S. Senators who openly embrace marriage equality -- and we have congressional leadership that prevented anti-gay Republicans from overturning the District of Columbia's new marriage equality law. And millions of LGBT people and families will benefit from health care reform's protections against predatory insurance companies. These are real and significant changes.

We also should not treat lightly the cultural impact of having an administration that publicly supports ENDA and repeal of DADT and is taking on a military culture that is resistant to change. Even if they have been too often too slow, consider replacing the voices of congressional leaders who embrace LGBT people and make the case for equality with the voices of people who have contempt for our lives and who describe us as threats to family and freedom.

If we don't do our part to try to minimize the damage, and work hard to protect threatened Democrats who have been our allies, we're going to turn on the television and find ourselves listening to elected leaders who, when it comes to LGBT Americans, sound just like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Harry Jackson.

If you're angry about the amount of progress we have made at the federal level, channel that anger against the real enemies of equality -- those who believe we are unworthy of equal treatment under our Constitution and laws. Don't declare the "GayTM" machine "closed for withdrawals" and stay on the sidelines. Spend the next month volunteering, activating, donating, voting and spreading the word about the danger we're in if we allow the anti-gay far right to take power in Congress. And it's important to remember that living in a gay-friendly state or in a congressional district with a supportive member of Congress will not protect you from the damage they will cause nationally.

If this is the year that you plan to sit out to send a message, make sure you do so fully knowing the consequences of a landslide victory by our opponents. But consider that the best way to send a message to friends and foes alike, and to continue progress toward an America whose LGBT citizens enjoy the same freedoms as our neighbors, will not be by sitting this election out but by demonstrating our commitment and resolve, by protecting allies, and by defeating those who would like to turn back the clock to the days when being gay was in itself a criminal act.

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