The Challenges of Being a Gay Member of Congress

These seven LGBT lawmakers are part of a community that, until recently, has been invisible on the national stage. With few of their peers willing to advance LGBT-affirming legislation, the onus is on them make our presence not only heard but integral to political debate.
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With more LGBT members of Congress than ever before, now is the time to define LGBT leadership as a cadre of policymakers willing to strain a political system resistant to LGBT-affirming laws and shape public opinion on behalf of all LGBT Americans. These seven LGBT lawmakers are part of a community that, until recently, has been invisible on the national stage. With few of their peers willing to advance LGBT-affirming legislation, the onus is on them make our presence not only heard but integral to political debate.

The White House has made it overwhelmingly clear that it would rather defer to Congress than take executive action. President Obama has yet to issue an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, and he did not play a role in convincing senators of his own party to support marriage equality. This puts LGBT representatives in a challenging position. They must navigate the wishes of their constituents while serving as the main advocates for a community that is so diverse that it permeates every sector of society. Placing LGBT interests within complex district and national frameworks is no easy task.

I called Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) to ask how he reconciles supporting LGBT-affirming legislation while representing his constituency. He said, "The onus is not fully on me, but I do feel a special responsibility. I think it is important for someone like me to not run away from who I am but embrace it. LGBT people across the country need to know they have a friend in Congress."

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) told me that his agenda as an LGBT member of Congress and the interests of his constituency overlap. "Most of my constituents care about these issues," he said. But lawmakers without a supportive constituency may still have the will to work on LGBT issues. He noted, "I have not seen someone shy away from their work." Such a willingness to test political limits is quite brave, given that perceived constituency position is the only factor to which elected officials are ultimately accountable. However, a district that elects an LGBT person to Congress probably would not take issue with their congressperson advancing LGBT-affirming legislation.

If the political will to work on LGBT issues does not depend on representation in Congress, is an LGBT presence even necessary? Or should the LGBT presence in Congress be proportional to the LGBT community's population? Most political scientists believe that descriptive representation is only valuable if it increases substantive representation, or the actual service to the interests of a minority group. When I asked LGBT congresspeople whether they believe that descriptive representation accomplishes this, I received a definite "yes." Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told me that he doesn't think LGBT-identifying lawmakers "are more capable, but it helps broaden the perspectives of other members of Congress." Cicilline agrees. He explained, "I don't think there is any question that the more Congress reflects the diversity of the country, it will increase the quality of the work we do."

Takano believes that LGBT members of Congress are needed because only they can provide "authentic representation." He explained that there is a stronger sense of authority on LGBT subjects "if you yourself have felt the direct effects of homophobia."

Descriptive representation does allow for surrogate representation in that members of Congress are able to serve interests not in their particular districts -- in other words, representation without a direct electoral relationship. Activists of many different backgrounds have long applied pressure to legislators who share a common minority status. After all, minority lawmakers are more likely able to understand the needs of their communities.

Donald Haider-Markel, author of Out and Running, found that representation of LGBT officials in elected offices increases the amount of LGBT legislation that reaches the political agenda. Adding voices and experiences into the political debate will increase the quality of discussion. Female members of Congress, for example, provide particular insights on issues such as the mental health and divorce rate of soldiers, which counterbalances the entrenched military-readiness focus of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But how do LGBT lawmakers elevate issues that affect the LGBT community? Certainty it is not easy, given House leadership. Cicilline points out that "[Republicans] have not made it a priority to have [LGBT legislation] go to the floor for a vote."

Takano suggested that while this constraint is in place, very little can get done. "I would like to see us do as much as possible to take back the House, even though there has been so much movement among senators," he said. "Very little is going to get done while the Republicans remain in control of the House."

He made it clear that "Republicans have been hostile to equality for all Americans," adding, "This immigration bill is a huge step forward, but it leaves out binational same-sex couples. And I lay that squarely at the feet of Republicans. I am sad it is not included. I want to take steps to call attention to that." However, he continued, "There are some Republicans who are individually supportive. Americas are far ahead of this majority in the House. And that is a very gratifying thing to see."

In this polarized political climate, fostering Republican allyship is a tall order to fill indeed. Cicilline emphasized this difficulty. "It is hard to know what goes on in the minds of those opposing some of these things," he explained. Cicilline argued that representation involves doing what you think is right while reflecting the views of your constituents. "It is good when they are the same," he noted. However, he believes that leadership sometimes requires "leading and making the case to their constituents," no matter their party affiliation.

Takano said that he handles the issue by "dealing with very conservative members in a joking manner," adding, "What I hope to achieve is a working relationship with them."

Whether or not LGBT leadership in Congress demands actively championing pieces of LGBT legislation, a role-model approach is still vital. For Cicilline, just the presence of LGBT members of Congress is critical for breaking down barriers. "It is much easier [to understand] when you don't talk about it in the abstract, and that it affects real people and they have real consequences," he said. He believes the swearing-in ceremony is the best example of lawmakers interacting with LGBT lawmakers and their families.

This "hearts and minds" approach appears to rely on restraint and patience. Polis explained that he would like to continue to expand the LGBT Equality Caucus. When asked how he seeks to do that, he explained, "It is happening over time." Though he added that the caucus "welcomes" Republicans, he left the "reach out" strategy with this: "We are happy to personally invite them [to join]." Polis said that there is "no special effort" to encourage Republicans to support LGBT-affirming legislation. He pointed out that many members are not aware of his sexuality, so routine business may not shape his colleagues' perceptions of LGBT people.

Takano feels that the "presence" aspect of LGBT leadership is critical. "I hope that by just being a competent member and expressing informed views on issues that aren't related to issues of LGBT equality, Republicans see me as a general asset," he said. He put his position in the context of a larger role as a member of Congress, adding, "In some ways, being gay here is one small part of who I am, and on some days it is a big part of who I am. Most of the business we transact here will not be about LGBT equality, but unfortunately we are an aggrieved people, and there will be moments in which I will have to stand up and speak for us."

While their very presence demonstrates that there has been huge advancement for LGBT leadership in Congress, hurdles still exist for members of our community to reach higher office. Takano said that he was still "in awe that we elected an African-American president." He added, "I would not be surprised if, in the near future, LGBT politicians break more barriers and glass ceilings." Polis does not believe that there is anything stopping an LGBT candidate from reaching the presidency. "I don't see any barriers to that," he said. "The country wants a president who is the best person for the job."

However, Takano recognized that there are still barriers to a same-sex couple competing on the national stage. When asked about former Rep. Barney Frank's (D-Mass.) belief that the nation would not receive affection between a gay presidential candidate and his spouse well, he noted, "It is hard to say when that will cease to be a significant reaction." Polis disagreed. "I think that kisses are always controversial," he said. "Public displays of affection are not OK among politicians. There is no double standard there."

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