Of the 435 members of the US House of Representatives, only four are openly gay, the best known among them Barney Frank. Of the 100 members of the Senate, none are.
However, in the House, 102 congressmen are also members of the Equality Caucus, who work to ensure non-discriminatory legislation with respect to LGBT issues. They have their work cut out for them, as even now, they and their assistants have to spot anti-LGBT amendments added to bills and act to excise them.
That said, for a relatively recent social movement (only about 40 years) there has been a “meteoric advance” of this issue, said Diego Sanchez, the Legislative Assistant to Congressman Frank.
Among their chief aims right now is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which denied federal recognition to same-sex marriage. Courts have already struck down the law, a decision recently affirmed by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, but it is being appealed further to the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, legislative efforts to repeal DOMA continue.
Much though advances have been due to court judgements, “legislative changes are more enduring,” said Tobias Wolff, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It is important to have as much public buy-in as possible.”
The other priority of the Equality Caucus is to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Various forms of this bill have been before Congress for decades, and “over 90 percent of the US public believe that such legislation should exist,” said Sanchez, but still it’s a struggle to realise it. He didn’t go into detail (probably too complex) why that was so.
A clue to the difficulty may lie in the make-up of the Equality Caucus. Although (currently) 242 members of the House of Representatives are Republican, and only 190 Democrats, the Caucus has only 3 Republicans among its 102 members. The other 99 are Democrats.
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Within the Republican Party, there’s a group known as the Log Cabin Republicans, who advocate gay-friendly policies within an overall conservative framework.
“We aim to build a more inclusive Republican Party – a big tent, so to speak – based on common core interests, e.g. liberty and individual responsibility,” said Clarke Cooper, Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans, based in Washington DC. “As former Vice-President Dick Cheney said, ‘Freedom means freedom for everyone’.”
“We rally among fellow conservatives [on themes] of economic independence, limited government, fiscal conservatism and strong national defence.”
Do the Log Cabin Republicans engage on non-gay issues? “We pick and choose,” he said. Currently, they are engaged in tax reform and balanced budget issues.
As for their track record on LGBT issues, “we’ve had partial support.”
At the same time, they hope to show the LGBT community that “they need us; nothing gets done in this city without bipartisan support.”
For example, the much-touted repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was largely a Republican effort, claimed Cooper. Republicans are naturally concerned about the effectiveness of the military, and the gay-friendly ones among them saw DADT as inimical to that. Although the courts had begun to question DADT, it was a bill sponsored by Senator Susan Collins (Republican, Maine) and Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) that finally made the change. Few people realise the pivotal role played by Republicans in this advance for gay rights, Cooper said.
The New York Times, however, has a rather different take on the eventual vote (New York Times, 15 Dec 2010, House votes to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, by Jennifer Steinhauer; Link).
What was interesting was the polling data presented. In 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency with a landslide, about 28 percent of LGBT voters voted Republican, according to a CNN poll.
In 2010, 31 percent of LGBT voters voted Republican, also according to CNN’s exit polls.
It is entirely possible, said Christian Berle, Deputy Executive Director (political portfolio) of the Log Cabin Republicans, that “a person can identify himself as LGBT and identify as conservative.”
This makes a difference for, as Casey Pick, Programs Director, said, “I can speak conservative to conservative, Christian to Christian. No one else can speak the same language.” As fellow Republicans, they also have access to party leaders whereas others might not.
This was not always the case. Not too long ago, the Log Cabin Republicans were kept at arm’s length by the party leadership. Even now, although some leaders would consult with them behind closed doors, once outside, those leaders would make “scathing comments,” noted Berle. “It’s a frustrating place to be.”
But what exactly has been the Log Cabin Republicans’ track record? I asked. For example, how many actually voted for the repeal of DADT?
“Eight Republican senators voted for and three abstained. In the House, fifteen Republican congressmen voted for repeal,” said Berle. The final vote count in the House as a whole was 250 for repeal and 175 against, indicating that the bulk of the support for repeal still came from Democrats.
Berle was quick, however, to point out that the party leadership lifted the whip, which was a victory in itself.
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One should not imagine that all issues relevant to LGBT communities can be solved through federal legislative action in the United States.
Cautioned Jeff Krehely, Vice-President of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington DC: “Much of LGBT work in this city is focussed on Congress, but there is a huge amount of authority that the executive branch has on tweaking programs to make them more inclusive.”
At the same time, “one of the most frustrating things” is the fact that many programs and policy decisions are delegated to state level. For example, “the healthcare reform law is turned into 50 different healthcare laws in states.”
So on the question of marriage, which is traditionally outside the scope of the federal government, we need to look at what’s happening in individual states. One such example would be Maryland, where its General Assembly (its bicameral legislature) recently passed a law legalising same-sex marriage. How was it achieved? At what price?
That’s coming in part 2.