"Our people are being thrown off buildings and they're stoned to death," Neil Grungras, the executive director of the Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration, told me this week, speaking about the plight of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the grip of ISIS in Syria. The photos and videos of gruesome atrocities committed against them have gone viral around the world, with reports of men executed on the charge of engaging in sodomy. Michael Lavers at The Washington Blade has done a great deal of reporting on this ghastly reality, quoting leaders of LGBT refugee support groups and others who discuss blood-curdling reports of violence by ISIS, including one report about a transgender woman who was hung from her breasts.
"You couldn't get more desperate," Grugras said. "You couldn't get a situation that's more shouting for justice." Those LGBT Syrians that do make it to Turkey or elsewhere as refugees seeking permanent, new homes, find themselves with little support, he said, facing rampant anti-gay discrimination, police brutality and poverty, often forced into sex work and put in dangerous situations.
These stories are among the many reasons why an intense backlash continues against gay and bisexual Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House -- Jared Polis of Colorado, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- who cowardly voted last week with the GOP and 44 other Democrats for the SAFE Act, a bill that, according to many refugee experts, would effectively shut down an already overburdened vetting process for Syrian and Iraqi refugees that takes up to two years. Polis, the first openly gay parent in Congress, was working overtime on Twitter and Facebook, clearly on the defensive and definitely not realizing the backlash would be so massive. Over the weekend, Maloney, the first openly gay person elected to Congress from New York State, tried to explain himself to AIDS activist Peter Staley, who lambasted Maloney on Facebook. But it was to no avail as Staley meticulously took apart Maloney's distortions and rationalizations, while others jumped in to take Maloney to task.
Sinema, the first openly bisexual House member, is perhaps the greatest hypocrite of the three: She represented refugees in the past as an attorney, and in 2007 defended an Iraqi refugee whose vetting was taking two years, claiming he was being discriminated against based on his nationality. Last week she faced headlines back in her home state, noting her "surprising" vote, or simply laying it out in more stark detail: "After Kyrsten Sinema's Vote on Syrian Refugees, Social Media Explodes With Outrage."
All three of these House members know that the bill pushed by the GOP leadership was intended to exploit fear and hysteria in the wake of the Paris attacks. While each of them disingenuously claims that the bill doesn't seriously impair an already onerous process -- defying refugee experts, the White House, the vast majority of the Democrats and even many Republicans who proudly voted for it -- some of their defenders on social media and elsewhere acknowledge that the bill is terrible but say that the three should be given a pass because they're either in tough districts, have faced hard elections or could be taken down by a Republican easily. The bill, they claim, has no chance of passing, with Senate Democratic leaders vowing to block it, so why force these legislators to take a hit?
But that is the most cynical kind of politics, especially on a vote like this. Sinema and Maloney have many right-wing votes under their belts which they can pull out come election time, including votes meant to damage or destroy Obamacare. It's also a lie, since Maloney has often voted against the interests of people in his district and for Wall Street tycoons and big banks, which have showered him with a lot of money for his campaigns. For co-chairs of the LGBT Equality Caucus -- which all three claim to be -- to stand for anything less than equality in a moment like this is outrageous, and when it comes to human rights no one gets a pass. LGBT advocates didn't give a pass to any member of Congress who voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment -- though it had no chance of passing -- and they didn't accept their allies giving them a pass as well. The cultural and psychic impact of such votes is damaging, and gives power to the bigots in legislatures, in boardrooms, in classrooms and on the streets.
Worse yet, anyone who claims this bill, or some version of it at some time down the road, can't become law is a risk-taker of the highest order. Anything can happen in a moment of heightened fear, when Donald Trump and the GOP are whipping up hate. Three weeks ago, few of the 47 Democrats who voted for this bill would have been part of what is now a veto-proof majority in the House on the bill. Just last week Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York was wavering on the issue before coming around. There could be another attack, perhaps even in this country, and Senate Democrats could cave. Has everyone forgotten the Patriot Act?
Moments like this are a test of leadership. Yet the leader of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group that helps elect LGBT politicians, refused to criticize, let alone dump, these three lawmakers after this shameful vote. Aisha Moodie-Mills, who previously worked at the Center for American Progress, said, "I don't have an opinion" on Syria, and said she didn't know much about the refugee situation. She then tried to claim the Victory Fund has no litmus tests for candidates, but in fact the group doesn't back anti-choice candidates even though there are LGBT people who morally oppose abortion. That's "about as deep in the weeds" as we get, she told Chris Johnson at the Washington Blade.
That's a pretty ridiculous statement since abortion is very much in the weeds -- like the deepest you can get. If you're going to have a litmus test for one group, why not others facing discrimination? The state group Equality California slammed the gay and bisexual lawmakers for feeding into "ignorance and fear." Other LGBT groups should follow suit. Equality should be the standard for anyone in the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. And Polis, Sinema and Maloney failed miserably at meeting that standard.