As Congress readies itself for a fierce debate on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a group of Senate aides has formed an association — the first of its kind in the Chamber — solely devoted to establishing a network for gay and lesbian staffers.
The House has had a similar organization in place for 10 years. But while several Senators rank among the gay and lesbian community’s most vocal supporters, there has never been an openly gay or lesbian Senator or a support group for staffers.
Officers of the Gays, Lesbians and Allies Senate Staff Caucus said the association was not formed in response to the recent flare-up over the gay marriage issue, but rather to create a community in their workplace that had long been lacking.
“There is a sense of invisibility among a lot of gay and lesbian Senate staffers,” said Mat Young, a co-chairman of GLASS and director of economic policy for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “So there is a lot of discussion about lives up here, but not much of an opportunity to connect and socialize.”
While the group’s members vowed not to lobby their employers on issues important to the gay and lesbian community, its creation comes at a time when equal rights for gays and lesbians has become a primary topic of discussion on Capitol Hill and across the nation.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), addressing more than 50 people at a reception celebrating the organization’s launch last week, predicted that the mere creation of the association will have a lasting influence on the institution.
“People know there are gay and lesbian people here,” said Frank, who is openly gay. “If they know we are here, but that none of us are prepared to be honest about being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered, then we are complicity confirming the view that there is something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. And by being where you are in proximity to the people who make the laws you have enormous effect.”
Just like most everything else on Capitol Hill, the event had partisan overtones. Frank accused Senate Republicans of bringing up the gay marriage amendment to try to hurt Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who is seeking reelection in a socially conservative state. And Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who reserved the reception room for the group, at one point coughed during his speech after sipping from a cup and jokingly remarked, “It must be Republican water.”
Even so, organizers are going to great pains to ensure the association remains politically neutral. Young and Lynden Armstrong, an aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), serve as co-chairs for the new organization — a move intended as a strong bipartisan statement.
“It is our job to support other staff and make sure they have a network where they can grow professionally, where they can socialize and make them feel they are part of a larger community,” Young said.
While there are no official statistics about how many gay and lesbian staffers work for Congress, aides who have openly declared that they are gay or lesbian suggest that the numbers are much higher than most people assume. Many gay and lesbian staffers choose to remain anonymous out of fear of being fired or ostracized, Hill aides say.
Those fears are not farfetched. In the past 11 years, several instances have come to light in which Members have made statements hostile to gays and lesbians. Among the more memorable comments include then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) remarks in 1998 comparing homosexuality to kleptomania and Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) comparison of homosexuality to bigamy and incest in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press.
There have been other examples of anti-gay actions by Members that have had a direct impact on the employment of gay or lesbian staffers. In 1993, former Oklahoma Reps. Bill Brewster (D) and James Inhofe (R), as well as current Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) told the Tulsa World that they would not hire a gay staff member. These comments caused an uproar on Capitol Hill and sparked an effort by gay and lesbian lobbying groups to pressure Members to sign pledges not to discriminate against gays and lesbians in their hiring practices. Brewster and Istook have since left Congress and Inhofe is now a Senator.
Two years later, the House Office of Fair Employment Practices determined that former Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins (D-Mich.) improperly fired a gay staffer after she suspected the aide was HIV-positive. And Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in an interview last week that he is aware of a former Senator, whom he declined to name, who fired staffers because they were gay.
On a positive note, Kennedy touted the nation’s progress on “race and ethnicity, women and disabilities. The last one is gays. This one is still a work in progress,” he said.
Declaring one’s sexuality remains a difficult decision for many gay and lesbian staffers, said Dave Lemmon, Stabenow’s communications director.
Lemmon said for his first four years as an aide on Capitol Hill he kept his sexuality secret — a decision he said had not only affected him professionally but also personally. When another person in his office “came out” of the closet in 1994, Lemmon said his colleague’s decision “empowered” him to do the same.
“I agonized over it,” Lemmon said. “I worried, ‘Is this going to hurt my career?’ It kept me from going to places in D.C. At the time it was a legitimate fear for me.”
But groups such as GLASS and its House counterpart should help other staffers more easily tackle the challenges he once faced. “I think it is a lot easier now and these kind of staff associations make it easier … especially for the younger staffers,” Lemmon said.
For gay and lesbian Republican staffers who work for socially conservative Members, the process of acknowledging one’s sexuality is even more difficult. Armstrong said GLASS is an organization that he hopes gay and lesbian GOP aides look to as a resource and as a support structure.
“There are a lot of gay Republican [staffers] in the Senate, and when someone looks at how this is [becoming] more visible, hopefully that makes some other people be comfortable,” said Armstrong, Domenici’s administrative director. Armstrong, however, acknowledged that “some people’s bosses are not receptive.”
As for Lautenberg, who locked horns with Attorney General John Ashcroft last year over Ashcroft’s refusal to allow a gay pride event to take place at the agency’s offices, the New Jersey Senator told those at the reception that people should live and let live.
“If you have the courage to stick up for the things you believe … there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t be able to get married,” Lautenberg said.