Midterms a Mixed Bag for LGBT Equality

Friday, 05 November 2010 12:05 By James Russell, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Midterms a Mixed Bag for LGBT Equality
Openly gay Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor David Cicilline recently won election to Congress.(Photo: AS220 / Flickr)

On Tuesday, voters ousted numerous LGBT allies in the US House and Senate, such as Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, who led the effort in the House of Representatives to overturn the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. However, they also elected a record-number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates to public office.

Democrat David Cicilline, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, became the fourth openly gay member of Congress, winning the Rhode Island House seat currently held by retiring Democrat Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a strong ally for the LGBT community. He joins openly gay House Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jared Polis of Colorado, all Democrats who handily won re-election.

Another feat was the election of Victoria Kolakowski of Oakland, California. Kolakowski's win in a tight run-off election for a superior court judge seat in Alameda County makes her the first openly transgender judge in the US.

Prominent Funders Fuel Election Victories for LGBT Candidates 

From the House of Representatives to Lexington, Kentucky, which just elected its first gay mayor, one of the most prominent groups tied to the victory of LGBT candidates is The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. This nonpartisan, federal, political, action committee funds, trains and promotes candidates for public office through donations, its Leadership Institute and a fellowship program. By focusing on politics through the endorsement and promotion of LGBT candidates, the fund seeks to gain equality for all LGBT people regardless of political affiliation.

In fact, since its 1991 founding, the fund's web site reads, "the number of openly LGBT elected officials serving in the U.S. has grown from 49 to more than 500." And the fund has backed many of them.

This campaign season, it backed a record 164 LGBT candidates, including Democrat, Republican and nonpartisan candidates - and saw a record 106 succeed. No Republican Congressional or state legislator backed by the fund, however, won election, according to Denis Dison, the fund's spokesperson.

Of its successes, the fund's CEO Chuck Wolfe said in a statement, "We can be proud that our community continues to expand its voice at all levels of government in America. Out public officials are having a sizable impact on the local, state and national debates about LGBT equality. Increasing their numbers is a vital part of a long-term strategy to change America's politics and make our country freer and fairer for everyone."

Equally powerful is the political action arm of the Human Rights Campaign  (HRC), the nation's largest LGBT rights organization. In a statement, HRC reported that it doled out nearly $1.2 million to both LGBT and pro-equality candidates and contributed volunteers to extensive field campaigns. Of HRC's endorsements, which included Democrats and Republicans, 80 percent won their election or re-election bids.

Rise of Hard-Right Republicans Worry Some Advocates

On a national level, the GOP's return to power in the House and increased numbers in the Senate mean uncertain days are ahead for the LGBT movement. The election of senators like Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who is well-known for his anti-LGBT views, as well as Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who said "don't ask, don't tell" is working "relatively well," are not encouraging to even the brightest-eyed optimists.

Indeed, the House's repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy may well have been a key factor in determining the night's elections. Chair of the Armed Services Committee Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Missouri) was ousted despite his drafting the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation and ultimately voting against  its repeal in the House. His opponent, right-wing anti-LGBT zealot and Tea Party candidate Vicky Hartzler, served as the spokeswoman  for Missouri's gay marriage ban, which passed in 2004.

The expected chair of the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-California), believes the policy should stay intact. Despite this, nearly 60 percent of Americans support repeal of the Clinton-era policy.

On a state level, many advocates in the LGBT movement are even more worried, as the Tea Party has hijacked many state Republican parties.

Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina, told North Carolina's Qnotes that he thinks they will finally "see an attempt to pass a constitutional amendment [on marriage]." State Republicans, now in control of both chambers of the legislature, "have pushed for an amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriage for nearly eight years," he said.

In Maine, which repealed a same-sex marriage law in 2009, rabidly anti-LGBT, Tea Party-backed and Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage won his bid against relatively pro-LGBT candidates Eliot Cutler and Libby Mitchell. The state's GOP platform recently affirmed, among other topics, that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The state's Republicans also took over the Maine legislature.

Still, heads of the movement's mainstream wings believe progress is still possible.

"Social justice movements always experience steps forward and steps back and this election turned out to be a mix of both," said HRC President Joe Solmonese in a statement. "Even though we will face greater challenges in moving federal legislation forward, nothing will stop us from using every tool to advance LGBT equality at every level. Attempts to hold back the tide of the equality movement will surely put anti-LGBT leaders on the wrong side of history."

The sentiments of Solmonese are echoed among leaders throughout the movement for LGBT equality. "The shift in the balance of power will very likely slow advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights legislation in Congress," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Does this mean a blockade on LGBT rights? Not if we can help it. Fact is, our community has always had to fight - and fight hard - for equality."

James Russell

James Russell is a Truthout intern.

Last modified on Friday, 05 November 2010 13:24