The controversial decision earlier this year by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to endorse gay Republican Richard Tisei over pro-LGBT Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) has prompted five openly gay or bisexual U.S. House members, all Democrats, to sign on as supporters of a fundraiser for Tierney.
The fundraiser, scheduled for June 25 in Washington, is being backed by at least two-dozen prominent LGBT Democrats and straight allies, including the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation, former Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese, and transgender advocate and Maryland State Senate candidate Dr. Dana Beyer.
Gay former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is among those signing on as an honorary co-chair of the fundraising event, which is being organized by two of Frankâ€™s former staff members.
The former staffers, Joseph Racalto and Maria Giesta, principals in the Washington political consulting firm Giesta Racalto, said they initiated the event to â€śbluntâ€ť the Victory Fundâ€™s endorsement of Tisei.
Tisei isÂ a former Massachusetts State senator. HeÂ has a strong record of support for LGBT rights, including marriage equality. He backedÂ a transgender rights bill that came up before the legislature.
Racalto and other LGBT Democrats supporting Tierney said they have no objection to an LGBT supportive gay Republican running for Congress.
But they said the Victory Fund should not have endorsed such a candidate in a race against a longtime straight ally such as Tierney, who has received a perfect 100 percent rating on LGBT issues from HRC.
â€śAlthough I applaud Tisei â€“ and all LGBT political candidates who run for public office â€” this endorsement is not justified and sets a dangerous precedent,â€ť Racalto said in a Blade commentary.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Tisei told the Blade he would be a champion for LGBT issues if elected to the House and would serve as a strong advocate for LGBT rights within the ranks of House Republicans.
He said he would not hesitate to defy House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) by signing a discharge petition to force Boehner and other House GOP leaders to bring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, to the House floor for a vote.
ENDA, which calls for banning employment discrimination against LGBT people, has been stalled in the Republican-controlled House. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed the legislation last year.
Racalto said that while Tisei has personally been supportive on LGBT issues, his commitment to push for those issues came into question last month when he formed a joint fundraising committee with conservative Republican Frank Guinta, whoâ€™s running for a House seat in New Hampshire.
Guinta opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights and had considered aligning himself with the ultra conservative Tea Party.
Tisei said the joint fundraising arrangement will enable the two candidates to share expenses and wonâ€™t in any way compromise his positions in support of LGBT rights.
â€śDuring the past 10 years I have seen a lot of peopleâ€™s positions change and evolve, including the presidentâ€™s, by the way,â€ť Tisei said.
He added that he sees his role as an advocate for change within the Republican Party and the Republican caucus of the House.
â€śA lot of people are re-examining their positions on marriage equality and other LGBT issues,â€ť he said. â€śAnd Iâ€™m going to work with as many different types of people on as many types of issues as I canâ€¦And I can serve, especially within the Republican caucus, as someone who helps bring people over to the right side of the issue.â€ť
Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the group endorsed Tisei last week. Angelo said he isn’t troubled over Tisei’s joint fundraising effort with Guinta.
“The more interesting aspect of this story to me is that ‘Tea Party’ types who contribute to this fund will be donating money to a gay Republican running for the House of Representatives,” Angelo said. “That’s the real story here.”
Victory Fund press secretary Steven Thai said his group saw Tisei as a change agent for the Republican PartyÂ along with Tiseiâ€™s longstanding record in support of LGBT rights when it endorsed him.
â€śI think it is sometimes shortsighted for folks to focus on the kind of short-term gains that can be made right now instead of the long-term goal that this world would be very different if we had more Republicans that supported us on our issues,â€ť Thai said. â€śAnd the only way weâ€™re ever going to get to that point is by electing openly gay Republicans that care about our issues.â€ť
D.C. gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein, who signed on as a member of the host committee for the Tierney fundraiser, said he agrees with the Victory Fundâ€™s mission of helping to elect LGBT-supportive candidates but not at the expense of long-time LGBT-supportive incumbents like Tierney.
â€śI donâ€™t see this as a conflict with my support for the Victory Fund,â€ť he said in referring to his role in the Tierney fundraiser. â€śI support the Victory Fund but not all of their candidates.â€ť
Political observers in Massachusetts say Tisei has a shot at unseating Tierney in part because heâ€™s perceived by many voters as a moderate Republican with a progressive record as a state legislator for more than 10 years.
Tisei came within just one percentage point of beating Tierney in the 2012 election at a time when Tierneyâ€™s wife and two brothers-in-law became embroiled in an illegal gambling scheme that landed his wife and one brother-in-law in jail.
Tierney himself was cleared of any wrong-doing in the scandal, in which his wife, Patrice Tierney, pleaded guilty in 2010 to filing false tax returns in connection with a checking account belonging to one of her brothers. As much as $7 million in illegal gambling funds passed through the account, according to law enforcement officials.
Politico reported that Tierney blames his brothers-in-law for duping his wife into believing the funds were part of a legal sports gambling business based in the Caribbean island of Antigua, which the brothers claimed to have been operating.
Republican Party operatives both in Massachusetts and outside the state have been raising the gambling scandal in attack ads targeting Tierney.
As if that were not enough, Tierney is being challenged by two Democrats in the stateâ€™s Democratic primary in September. One of the candidates, former U.S. Marine and Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton, raised more money than Tierney in the most recent campaign reporting period, raising concern among Tierney supporters. On his campaign website, Moulton has expressed support for LGBT rights, including marriage equality.
The gay House members signing on as honorary co-chairs for the Tierney fundraiser are Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.). Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the first openly bisexual member of Congress, also signed on as an honorary co-chair.
The name of Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the first openly gay person to win election to the U.S. Senate, is conspicuously absent from the list of honorary co-chairs for the Tierney fundraiser. Racalto said organizers invited Baldwin to participate but have not heard back from her office.
A Baldwin spokesperson didnâ€™t respond to a request from the Blade for a comment on why Baldwin hasnâ€™t signed on to the fundraiser. The Victory Fund endorsed Baldwin in her hotly contested Senate race in 2012 and helped raise money for her successful campaign.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has signed on as an honorary co-chair for the Tierney fundraiser along with Tierneyâ€™s eight House colleagues from Massachusetts, all of whom are Democrats. The stateâ€™s other senator, Elizabeth Warren (D), has so far not signed on as an honorary co-chair.
Other supporters of the event, in addition to Solmonese, Rosenstein, and Beyer, include former Barney Frank staffers Peter Kovar and Diego Sanchez; Brad Luna; John Weinfurter; Tucker Gallagher; Lane Hudson; and Paul Hazen.
Racalto said he didnâ€™t extend an invitation to participate in the event to Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), who came out as gay last year and who has been endorsed by the Victory Fund in his race for governor of Maine.
“We didn’t invite him simply because of his run for governor,” Racalto said. “The Victory Fund played no part in that decision.”
By STEPHANIE SCHRIOCK
There is a big difference between being a topic of conversation and being a part of the conversation. If we want a truly representative democracy, we need to elect a government that actually looks like our nation of individuals â€“ of every gender, race, religion and orientation.
EMILYâ€™s List works on making that vision a reality by supporting diverse Democratic women candidates for every level of office. And we have work to do: We elected an historic number of women in 2012, but women are still only 19 percent of Congress. Thatâ€™s one of the reasons weâ€™ll fight for the underdog candidate when we know she is the right one.
In 2011, when everyone told us that Tammy Baldwin couldnâ€™t win a Senate race in Wisconsin, we put everything we had behind her and made it happen. Weâ€™d been standing with Tammy for years and knew she was a champion for every Wisconsinite. And, in 2012, Baldwin made history when she was elected as our nationâ€™s first openly gay United States Senator.
Having her voice in the Senate makes a difference. Having Kyrsten Sinemaâ€™s voice in the House of Representatives makes a difference. Having Annise Parker as mayor of Houston makes a difference.
Having LGBT voices in the halls of power is not just important, itâ€™s essential. Itâ€™s something we need to work on every month, not just Pride Month, because the work these women do has a lasting impact.
Women like current candidate for governor of Maryland, Del. Heather Mizeur, who has done incredible work to bring marriage equality to her state. As a city councilor she helped Takoma Park become the first municipality to pass a resolution in support of same-sex marriage and as a state delegate, her passionate floor speech helped secure final passage for statewide marriage equality. And women like candidate for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey who, as assistant attorney general took on the federal government and worked working tirelessly to challenge DOMA and see it overturned.
In Houston, Mayor Annise Parker championed anÂ ordinance that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Despite threats of a recall, Parker refuses to put political games ahead of the rights of the people of Houston. In Nevada, state Sen. Pat Spearman, an advocate for LGBT people of color, ensured gender identity protections were included in hate crimes prevention laws. Oregonâ€™s House Speaker Tina Kotek played a large role in the passage of the Oregon Family Fairness Act, the Oregon Equality Act and strengthening laws to protect students from bullying in schools.
Elections matter. Electing these women has changed their towns and states and our country. Electing more LGBT women and more women LGBT allies will make ours a more inclusive country.
Right now, the EMILYâ€™s List women in the Senate have a 100 percent record on supporting the overturning of DOMA, backing an LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act, voting for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and publicly backing marriage equality. Thatâ€™s a record I am proud of.
One of the bravest things you can do in a democracy is put your name on the ballot. Especially when you may not meet the stereotypes of a candidate, or be the most obvious person to run for office.
We need to stand with the women brave enough to do just that. This is a nation of individuals, and it should be a nation where everyone can be proud of what makes them unique, and have their voices heard.
Stephanie Schriock is president of EMILYâ€™s List.
A gay man is running for Congress in Massachusetts against a straight incumbent. The gay man has been endorsed by the Victory Fund. So why are so many members of Congress who are strong supporters of both the Victory Fund and LGBT rights holding a fundraiser in Washington on June 25 for the straight guy?
Those hosting the fundraiser include Sen. Ed Markey, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and participating are Steny Hoyer, Richard Neal, James McGovern, Michael Capuano, Stephen Lynch, Niki Tsongas, as well as members who are themselves gay or bisexual, including Reps. David Cicilline, Jared Polis, Mark Takano, Kyrsten Sinema, Mark Pocan and former Congressman Barney Frank. The easy answer is that the gay man is running as a Republican and the straight incumbent is a Democrat. But the answer is really much more complicated than that.
The gay Republican is Richard Tisei and he first ran and lost against the straight incumbent John Tierney (D-Mass.) in 2012. Tisei served in the Massachusetts Legislature for 26 years. He then ran and lost as the lieutenant governor candidate on Charlie Bakerâ€™s ticket in 2010. It was at that time that he came out. The Democratic incumbent is Tierney, who has served in Congress since 1997. He is a liberal member of Congress who has voted with other Democratic representatives from Massachusetts. He is the co-author of the Green Jobs Act of 2007 and the College Affordability and Accountability Act of 2008 and a strong supporter of LGBT rights.
The issue is more than just gay or straight because in Congress today, seemingly even more than in the past, party affiliation is paramount. That is the reason so many LGBT members are willing to raise money and support a straight person over a gay person. Should Tisei win and come to Washington, his first vote would be for the Republican leadership. Today that would be John Boehner for speaker and most likely even more conservative Republicans for majority leader and whip. Those votes alone will dictate what Tisei can or canâ€™t accomplish during his tenure in office.
The man Tisei is committed to supporting for speaker is John Boehner. Boehner has so far refused to bring ENDA to a floor vote, even though it passed with bipartisan support in the Senate. So even if Tisei campaigns and says he supports ENDA it wonâ€™t matter. He will be casting that first hypocritical vote for leadership that controls the agenda and opposes what he says he supports.
Tiseiâ€™s supporters say that having an openly gay Republican in the House can impact others in his party. Tiseiâ€™s history suggests otherwise. When he ran for lieutenant governor with Baker in 2010, he wasnâ€™t able to convince his running mate to support transgender rights.
The issue for many Democrats is simple: Electing another Republican just helps Boehner and the far right stay in power. We have often seen that contrary to changing the Republican Party, LGBT groups in the Republican Party like Log Cabin, went along to get along and supported Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan who campaigned on a pledge to appoint judges opposed to marriage equality.
Like many, I hope the Republican Party will change in the future. I believe that enough Republicans will decide that they canâ€™t continue to support leadership and a platform that is consistently on the wrong side of history. They will see that a Republican Party that refuses to pass an immigration reform bill, continues to carry on a war against womenâ€™s rights, including denying equal pay for equal work, campaigns against raising the minimum wage and works to deny full civil and human rights to the LGBT community is not a path to a better future for America. But that fight will have to be carried on internally in the Republican Party.
Democrats shouldnâ€™t be led to believe that they are helping by electing Republican members of Congress â€” gay or straight â€” who will support the current leadership.
Two Democratic members of Congress â€” one gay and one bisexual â€” are incurring the wrath of LGBT activists for voting with House Republicans to delay certain portions of Obamacare in exchange for keeping the government in operation.
Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were among nine Democrats on Monday who voted for a Republican-led resolution that provided funds for the government for fiscal year 2014, but included a provision delaying the individual mandate andÂ requiring members of Congress and their staffs to pay the full cost of insurance without the government subsidy.
Additionally, Maloney voted for another measure that includes the above policy items in addition to calling for a conference committee with the Senate, which would likely mean some give on health care reform.
Both Maloney and Sinema also joined Republicans on Sunday to vote for repeal of the tax on medical devices as part of Obamacare.
Each House proposal was rejected by the Senate, which has insisted on a bill that only continues funding for the government, leading to the stalemate that caused the government shutdown on Tuesday.
Michael Rogers, a D.C.-based LGBT rights advocate, said the vote means Sinema and Maloney are Democrats in name only.
“I am a progressive so I wish Sinema and Maloney were more concernedÂ about the American people than with their reelection,” Rogers said. “When DemocratsÂ stand for Democratic principles we win. If these two people won asÂ out LGBT people, surely they would not have been tossed out stickingÂ with their caucus. It is sellouts like Sinema and Maloney who, asÂ DINOs, are more than willing to cave in to the crazy demands of theÂ right.”
Michaelangelo Signorile, a gay New York activist and radio host on SiriusXM, took to Twitter to express his indignation.
— Mike Signorile (@MSignorile) October 1, 2013
John Aravosis, who’s gay and editor of AMERICAblog, also had harsh words for the two lawmakers, who ran as openly gay/bi candidates and took donations from the LGBT community.
“I think it’s abominable,” Aravosis said. “No Democrat, let alone a gay or bisexual one,Â should be working to undercut health care protections for Americans,Â let alone helping John Boehner do anything.”
The other openly gay lawmakers in the U.S. House â€” Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), David Cicciline (D-R.I.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) â€” didn’t join Maloney or Sinema in these votes.
Maloney and Sinema voted against the most drastic proposal from House Republicans to attach a one-year delay of health care reform to the spending bill for fiscal year 2014.
In a statement, Maloney defended his vote for delaying the individual mandate by pointing to the administration.
â€śI strongly support the presidentâ€™s decision to give employers more time to comply with the law, and I believe that we should give families the same flexibility weâ€™re giving to our small businesses,” Maloney said.
Maloney also explained his support for eliminating health care subsidies for government employees by saying the playing field for public and private workers should be equal.
â€śFamilies and businesses in the Hudson Valley are not getting special subsidies from Obamacare and neither should members of Congress or the White House,â€ť Maloney said.
In a separate statement, Sinema defended her votes by saying they ensure individuals can sign up for health care plans without “being punished” for failing to purchase adequate healthcare coverage.
“Itâ€™s now been proven that too many states are not ready to implement the marketplaces,” Sinema said. “Itâ€™s not fair to punish people who donâ€™t have the information they need to make informed decisions. Arizonaâ€™s hard-working families need transparency and certainty about this healthcare law and its implementation. A one-year delay of the individual mandate will ensure that Arizonans get that certainty.”
SinemaÂ also said health care subsidies for government employees shouldn’t happen with a government shutdown in effect.
“Additionally, I supported tonight’s amendment because members of Congress should not ask the government to pay for their healthcare while Americans at home suffer during government shutdown,” Sinema said.
Neither the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor the Democratic National Committee responded to the Blade’s request for comment on Sinema and Maloney joining House Republicans. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, is on furlough and unable to respond to media requests.
The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which endorsed the openly gay/bi candidates and called for donations from LGBT people for the candidates, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Human Rights Campaign also endorsed both candidates and didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sinema and Maloney have been active on LGBT-specific issues since their election to Congress. They voted for an LGBT-inclusive version of Â the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization and signed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.
Dana Beyer, a Chevy Chase, Md.,-based transgender activist, said the LGBT community shouldn’t judge Sinema and Maloney too harshly for their votes because “these late nightÂ political machinations areÂ generally theater” and don’t say anything about the lawmakers’ overall voting records.
“This issue isn’t about the LGBT community; it’s about America,” Beyer said. “They should be judged on a much broader set of criteria and values than this one vote, and I hope people take the context into account.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said extending rights to LGBT residents is good for his cityâ€™s economy.
â€śWeâ€™re a big city; weâ€™re a young city; weâ€™re a city that got hammered during the recession,â€ť he told the Washington Blade in an interview this week. â€śI need every single person in my city to have every opportunity to be successful.â€ť
Stanton spoke to the Blade a day after the Human Rights Campaign released its annual index that ranks cities based on whether their laws and policies specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It also examined other factors that include whether a cityâ€™s police department has an LGBT liaison and if officials reported 2011 hate crimes statistics to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Phoenix is among the 25 cities around the country that include Philadelphia, Seattle and Atlanta that received a perfect score in the index. The Arizona capital, which is the sixth largest city in the U.S., is one of only eight cities in states without LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination laws that garnered such a ranking.
â€śItâ€™s a recognition by me that I want the very best and brightest people to stay here in Phoenix, including our LGBT community,â€ť Stanton told the Blade. â€śI want them to make sure they feel fully supported by their city government.â€ť
Arizona voters in 2006 rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman. They approved an identical measure two years later.
Gov. Jan Brewer in 2009 signed a budget into law that eliminated health benefits for same-sex partners of state employees.
Lambda Legal and the D.C. law firm Perkins Coie subsequently filed a lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of 10 state employees. The U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to hear Brewerâ€™s appeal of a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals injunction that blocked the governor from enforcing the benefits ban.
The Phoenix City Council in February approved a measure that bans anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and government contracts. Stanton also co-chairs a Freedom to Marry coalition of nearly 400 mayors from across the country who support marriage rights for same-sex couples.
â€śCompanies want to move to or increase jobs in locations where the laws are similar to their corporate policies about supporting all of their employees, including the LGBT community,â€ť Stanton told the Blade. â€śFor us to be able to retain the best and the brightest and attract the best and the brightest, we have to have laws that say we want the best and the brightest.â€ť
Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake are among the 10 Republicans in the U.S. Senate who voted for a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act on Nov. 7.
Stanton said he is â€śvery proudâ€ť of the GOP lawmakers for backing ENDA and for what he described as their leadership on efforts in support of a comprehensive immigration reform measure that remains stalled in Congress.
â€śI cannot believe the House will not take that up,â€ť Stanton told the Blade, discussing House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)’s reluctance to allow an ENDA vote in his chamber. â€śENDA is a no-brainer.â€ť
Stanton also applauded bisexual Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema who represents portions of south Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa and Chandler and the city of Tempe.
He told the Blade that Sinema was â€śpublic about her sexualityâ€ť during the time they worked together when he was on the Phoenix City Council and she was in the state legislature. Stanton said he doesnâ€™t give her sexual orientation â€śa second thought.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m proud of her for who she is and how she represents our state,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™m proud she represents us in Washington for all that she does, including the diversity that she brings to Congress. Sheâ€™s an amazing person as people in Washington are learning, but weâ€™ve known about her here for a long time already.â€ť
A group of 10 House members comprised of five Republicans and five Democrats is amping up the pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to bring to the floor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
In a Dec. 3 missive, the bipartisan group of lawmakers â€” led by gay Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and bisexual Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) â€” call on Boehner to “bring this timely and commonsense legislation to a vote” before the end of the 113th Congress.
“Job discrimination against any American creates an uneven playing field that runs contrary to the basic notion of equality and our economic efficiency,” the lawmakers write. “What matters most is not that we share the exact same beliefs as our co-workers or employees, but that we take pride in our work, respect our co-workers and customers, and get the job done.”
The five Republicans who signed the letter are the five Republican co-sponsors of the bill: Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) and Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.).
On the other side of the aisle, the five Democrats who signed the letter are Maloney and Sinema as well as gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).
The legislation already passed the Senate last month in a historic 64-32 bipartisan vote. Ten Republicans voted with the Democratic caucus in approving the bill.
In the push to bring it to a House vote, proponents of the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the White House, have said sufficient votes are present for passage if the legislation comes to the floor.
The lead signers of the letter â€” Maloney and Sinema â€” had previously incurred the wrath of progressive LGBT leaders for joining the House Republicans in votes over Obamacare that led to the shutdown of the federal government.
In remarks about economy mobility at the Center for American Progress on Wednesday, President Obama encouraged passage of ENDA as he rattled off a series of legislative items he supports.
“Itâ€™s time to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act so workers canâ€™t be fired for who they are or who they love,” Obama said.
Despite these efforts, a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act seems in doubt. Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesperson, said in response to the letter, “The Speaker has been clear on this issue.”
In fact, momentum on the bill seems to have stalled in the weeks following the Senate vote. Although the bill was gaining supporters in the House at the time of the Senate vote and now has 201 sponsors, the latest additions are all Democrats and no additional co-sponsors have been added since Nov. 18.
LGBT workers are apparently caught in a standoff between the White House and Congress as Boehner has consistently said he opposes the legislation and President Obama continues to withhold an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.
Asked by the Washington Blade during his news conference last week whether the growth of co-sponsors demonstrates the need for allowing a vote on the bill, Boehner reiterated he sees no need for ENDA.
“As I said last week, I’m opposed to discrimination in any case, but I don’t believe that we need additional frivolous litigation in the employment area,” Boehner said.
The Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute held a celebration at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Friday. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)
Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening, President Obama delivered the first State of the Union address of his second term that included one overt reference to gay people in addition to a veiled reference to the LGBT community as he highlighted other initiatives.
Obama’s most explicit gay reference came when he pledged to “do whatever we must” to protect U.S. troops serving the country overseas. At that point, Obama touted the extension of limited partner benefits to gay troops that was announced by the Pentagon a day earlierÂ â€” possibly alluding to further benefits upon repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
“As long as I’m commander in chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world,” Obama said. “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal treatment for their families â€” gay and straight.”
Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said Obama “was very clear” that gay service members and their families should be treated equally â€” but noted the work isn’t finished.
“To finish the task, the Supreme Court must strike down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” Robinson said. “Secretary Panetta’s successor must enact equal opportunity and non-discrimination policies that protect LGBT troops and ensure America’s military can attract and retain America’s best. And outmoded, obsolete policies that bar qualified American patriots who are transgender from military service must be eliminated.”
A less overt â€” but more forward looking â€” reference to the LGBT community came at the beginning of his speech when Obama alluded to gay people when talking about removing barriers preventing Americans from joining the middle class “no matter … who you love.”
“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth,” Obama said. “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country â€” the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, or who you love.”
That remark has been interpreted as a call on Congress to pass employment non-discrimination protections because the absence of such a law is seen as an impediment to LGBT workers reaching economic prosperity. Prior to the address, advocates were hopeful Obama would use the occasion of the State of the Union address to push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and pledge to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT job bias.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, was among those who interpreted the remarks as an allusionÂ ”to the need to outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans” â€” but called on Obama to take more action.
“First, the president should sign the executive order adding LGBT workplace protections to almost 25 percent of all American jobs,” Almeida said. “Second, he should encourage Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep his three-year-old promise to bring ENDA to a vote on the Senate floor for a long overdue vote.”
Almeida added he wants Obama to “explicitly call on both chambers of Congress to pass ENDA” in another speech sometime before the Senate vote expected this year.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, took a broader view.
“I think that it’s broader and more significant in that it includes kind of a broad sweep of the inclusion of gay people in the middle class,” Sainz said. “And so, it has everything to do with employment and opportunity and every hope and dream that LGBT have.”
Asked whether the language satisfies his previous call for Obama to lay out plans for the LGBT executive order during the State of the Union, Sainz said he thinks it falls short of that request, but said it’s still significant.
“I don’t think he necessarily speaks to it directly, but I do think that it is further evidence of … mainstreaming of LGBT people in all aspects of American life,” Sainz said.
The LGBT references build off the stronger references that Obama made during his inaugural speech when he invoked the Stonewall riots and saidÂ ”the love we commit to one another must be equal.” In his three previous State of the Union speeches,Â Obama has also mentioned the LGBT community and talked about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
Obama also made a reference to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic when he talked about the United States pushing to make progress in poorer countries.
The president hit on “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation,” then, diverting from his prepared remarks, said it’s “within our reach.” That term was coined by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of the Obama administration’s pledge to rid the world of the disease.
Kali Lindsey, director of legislative and public affairs for theÂ National MinorityÂ AIDSÂ Council, said in a statement Obama’s remarks are a call to action “to makeÂ AIDSÂ this centuryâ€™s polio.”
“This includes continued funding for PEPFAR, the Presidentâ€™s Emergency Plan forÂ AIDSÂ Relief, and the Ryan White HIV/AIDSÂ Program,” Lindsey said. “It also means continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act in a way that meets the needs of those living with and vulnerable to chronic and communicable diseases, like HIV.”
Obama also made an implicit LGBT reference when he called on the House to pass the version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that the Senate had passed on a bipartisan vote just hours earlier. The Senate version of the bill has explicit LGBT language to help LGBT victims of domestic violence.
“Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago,” Obama said. “I urge the House to do the same.”
But an LGBT references was notably left out of Obama’s speech when he talked about the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform without mentioning the potential separation that bi-national same-sex couples face in the United States.
Instead, Obama talked about “a responsible pathway” to citizenship that includes a background check and learning English and fixing problems in the legal immigration system. Obama included gay couples in the plan he unveiled for reform.
The LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL expressed disappointment in the State of the Union address.
“As someone who would qualify for the DREAM Act and who is part of a bi-national family, I know first-hand that true comprehensive immigration reform must include LGBTQ families, a fair and just pathway to citizenship, and an end to harsh enforcement that separates families,”Â said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, GetEQUAL’s national field director.
Heather Cronk,Â GetEQUAL’s managing director, criticized Obama for not committing to signing an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT job bias for federal contractors â€” noting he announced other directives, such as one related to cybersecurity. She was among thoseÂ who protested at the White House on Sunday over the non-discrimination directive.
“He had his pen out today to sign other executive orders â€” it’s incumbent on the LGBT community to ask why he decided to put that pen away before protecting 25 percent of the American workforce from workplace discrimination,” Cronk said.
Local members of the LGBT community were among the guests during the State of the Union. The White House invited Tracey Hepner, a lesbian Arlington, Va., resident and co-founder of Military Partners and Families Coalition, to sit with first lady Michelle Obama. She’s the spouse of the military’s first openly gay flag officer, Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith.
Also in attendance was Kelly Costello, a lesbian Potomac, Md., resident, who was invited by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act. Costello and her Peruvian native spouse Fabiola Morales, who married in Washington, D.C., are a bi-national same-sex couples fighting to stay together in the United States.
While some advocacy groups were calling on Obama to take more action after the State of the Union address, LGBT lawmakers praised Obama when speaking with the Blade in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall after the speech.
Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said Obama’s LGBT-inclusiveness builds off the remarks that he gave on LGBT issues during his inaugural address.
“We started on the inaugural address,” Baldwin said. “We talked about the fact that the inclusion was poetic, and sort of weaving into the larger fabric of movements throughout our nation’s history. Today, I was pleased with the power of his language, especially with regard to seeing through the implementation of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and respecting not only the right to serve, but the right to full recognition for families and service members.”
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the only openly bisexual member of Congress, said she was pleased with the move to expand benefits for gay troops.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Sinema said. “I think the fact that not only did the Department of Defense take this action, but the president referenced it in his speech shows that there is widespread acceptance. Not only that, but this is not a controversial issue.”
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the first openly gay Asian-American in Congress, was seated next to Sinema in the gallery and said they nudged each other when Obama mentioned partner benefits for gay troops.
“I certainly applaud the president for not only mentioning it in his inaugural speech, but he also made a reference to LGBT equality in my first State of the Union,” Takano said. “What a thing that is, so I’m hopeful we’ll move forward in this Congress.”
One member of Congress who wouldn’t speak to the Blade about the State of the Union was anti-gay Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.). Asked whether she would provide a comment for the Blade, Hartzler replied, “Ah, that’s OK.”