Comment: Does the US Congress represent LGBT Americans?

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Having undertaken an internship on Capitol Hill, British student Cai Wilshaw writes for on how America still has a long way to go when it comes to LGBT political representation and equality.

Washington DC – the seat of power, the home to US political hard-hitters – and in some respects, a very gay Capitol indeed. LGBT staffers are commonplace in the political centre of DC, and indeed LGBT Congressional Staffers meet up on a regular basis for work and for pleasure. But as the number of women in power increases year-by-year, indicating the continuing success of the fight for equal rights, the number of openly gay politicians in DC remains low. In fact, there have only ever been 6 openly gay congressmen in the whole history of Congress – all of whom have been Democrats.

In my time in Washington DC, I was lucky enough to have the chance to interview one of these LGBT legislators, Representative Jared Polis of Colorado’s 2nd congressional district. Polis’s is an impressive tale even by congressional standards – starting his first business venture straight out of Princeton University, he pursued a successful entrepreneurial career before making the transition to public life. Back in 2008, he won his election with 62% of the vote, becoming the first gay parent in Congress. With such dynamic progress being made in the equal rights battle during the last few years, my first question to him was – what’s next?

As Representative Polis was quick to point out, the gains made in Parliament over the pond haven’t yet been matched by the US. “The truth remains that half of the US live in a state where they can’t marry the person they love” said Polis, “and people can still actually be fired for being gay in the workplace.” This dose of reality certainly serves as a reminder that the fight for equal rights is far from over – in many places across the globe, it is only just beginning. Polis, of course, is right to point out that though the Supreme Court’s decision to judge DOMA as unconstitutional was historic, it was also simply deferring the issue to other, more local, authorities. While this looks like progress, sadly it is progress only in name. The fact remains that LGBT couples across the nation are still denied the same recognition as heterosexual couples by their own government.

However, legislators are increasingly adding their voices to the calls for equality, and the mission for progress. Polis is a co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, an alliance of openly gay members of Congress who together push for equality issues in addition to their own agenda priorities. As Polis noted quite poignantly, the Caucus is by no means the members’ primary affiliation, especially not above their constituency. But what binds the co-chairs of the Equality Caucus together is life experiences that, for better or for worse, have fundamentally shaped their view of politics and has strengthened their belief in equality.

We discussed his various objectives for the remainder of his two-year term – fixing a broken immigration system, ensuring access to education, and of course his constituency duties. I found myself wondering how LGBT legislators strike the balance between being defined by their sexuality, and pushing their policy priorities forward. Polis, as well as the other members of the Equality Caucus, may by some be known as “the openly gay Congressmen”, in the same way as the 2008 Democratic nomination was dominated by the superlatives “first woman” or “first black” presidents. As much as politicians might battle against being typecast, it is just as important to ensure they become a role-model for precisely those defining characteristics to which they are confined by others.

The gay community has a particular need for such leadership, especially from its members who lead the way in public life. Six openly gay congressmen is a small figure by any standards – out of over 500 legislators working on Capitol Hill. Polis and I certainly agreed there is an inherent underrepresentation in Congress; according to the demographics, there should by all means be between 20-30 gay members of Congress. I asked Polis – is this a problem with Congress? Do people feel discouraged from running for office, thinking that their sexuality might affect the way they are seen by the electorate, or treated by their Congressional colleagues? Polis seemed to think it is more of a generational problem, the relic of an age whose prejudices are only now being effaced – those in the position to run for office have previously seen their sexuality as a barrier to office. We also both appreciated that coming out is difficult enough as it is – now doing so in the public sphere, that’s a completely different kettle of fish.

Moreover, if there really is a problem, it certainly doesn’t lie in the Democratic camp. Out of 110 members of Congress who are involved with the LGBT Equality Caucus, there are only 2 Republican members. It would be difficult to deny that this is telling – but the question is whether this is simply a matter of their “traditional” ideology, or an issue of exclusion and characteristic of the harsh stance on homosexuality held by some prominent Republicans.

Of course, progress on LGBT issues is all too often confined to gay men, and lesbians, trans people and those who identify outside such limitations have even fewer role models to follow. Tammy Baldwin remains the only lesbian congresswomen ever, and it will likely be a very long time before we see trans legislators. There will be a day at which gay men in Congress reach a level at which it would be easy for gay rights activists to rest on their laurels, calling it a “job well done”. But we must work hard to ensure that nobody considers the battle for equal rights anything less than the fight for equality and representation for all sexual identities, and not just the mainstream delineations of LGBT.

In all, it seems there is a way to go. Such programmes as the LGBT Equality Caucus and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, which strives to encourage LGBT people to get involved in politics, do much to foster the perpetuation of the discussion. The question remains to be seen, however, how long such a change will take – in an era where we have seen our first black president, and may soon see our first woman president, it is difficult not to ask the big question. When will we have our first gay President of the United States? Will we see the day when the White House hosts its first gay parents?

Cai Wilshaw is studying at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

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