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Staff Group Hits Milestone

Now 10, Lesbian and Gay Group Hopes to Build Membership

Organizations usually gain momentum as they grow over the years, attracting new members and educating others about its purpose. Over the past 10 years, the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association has been no exception, as it has flourished in its efforts to increase the visibility of lesbian and gay staffers on the Hill.

However, as LGCSA recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, the number of paying members is actually less than it was when the group first started. LGCSA has about 50 to 75 dues-paying members today, compared to more than 100 such members 10 years ago. The numbers have not been as high since the control of Congress changed in the ’94 elections, said Victor Castillo, a member of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for lesbian and gay employees of the House of Representatives.

Technological advancements have been a great help to those interested in the organization. The group, whose official membership is restricted to employees of the House, has an e-mail list with about 200 subscribers, most of whom are part of the larger Hill community.

Conversations about forming LGCSA began in the 103rd Congress, and the group officially was deemed an association of the House in 1994.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to then-Speaker Tom Foley [D-Wash.], who approved the association back in 1994,” Castillo said.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he was “one of those who urged Foley to do it,” and has been a Congressional sponsor of LGCSA since its formation. He said while things “don’t change fast enough in this sort of a situation,” attitudes toward lesbians and gays on the Hill are getting better.

“Part of the change is generational,” Frank said. “Today’s Members are people who were born later than the Members in ’94. The later people were born, the more they were born into a society where there was less prejudice on this.”

In an effort to promote openness to diversity, LGCSA members strive to educate those around them about their lifestyle choices. Using the $20 annual dues from paying members, the group hosts brown bag lunches, mixers and speakers, among other events, which are all open to the entire Hill community.

“They have a very significant educational mission,” said Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), one of the LGCSA’s sponsors. “The organization frequently invites speakers both political and not-so-political in nature to increase the education and awareness level on Capitol Hill on issues related to gay and lesbian civil rights.”

While the group discusses how legislation will impact the gay and lesbian community, LGCSA takes no position on bills. The organization primarily exists to promote the welfare of lesbian and gay employees of the House, according to its Web site.

“We provide a social networking,” Castillo said. “Just like staff benefit from going on staff trips together and getting to know other staffers, we’re assembling our members to meet and form stronger bonds.”

However, while there is an organization for lesbian and gay House staffers, it does not mean every lesbian and gay staffer participates in LGCSA.

“It’s a personal experience — they need to determine whether [coming out] works for them or not,” Castillo said. “Being out isn’t a crusade, it’s just letting people know who you are. We’re not forcing it down your throats, we’re just talking about who we are.”

Castillo said some might decide they don’t need to be out at work, while others might choose to go work some place where they can “be who they are.”

“If they’ve got a bigoted boss you’ve got to wonder why they’re working for that person,” Frank said. “Today there are choices, 30 years ago there weren’t.”

At the LGCSA 10th anniversary reception Nov. 17, Castillo said Frank told those in attendance that 30 years ago a group like LGCSA would not have been possible, but 30 years from now a group like LGCSA will not be necessary. Castillo added that he agreed, because “what we do today always benefits the people who come after us.”

Several Members spoke at the reception, including Frank, Baldwin and the other LGCSA sponsor, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). Many of them identified their lesbian and gay staffers and spoke of what a benefit they are to their offices. Castillo said having a supportive boss and work environment makes all the difference.

“When Members openly stated they would not promote lesbian and gay staff, it prompted us to form,” Castillo said. “The more people who are open to diversity, whatever that diversity is, strengthens an office’s role and position.”

Visibility on the Hill is something members of LGCSA work toward, because that “lets them know what our issues are. We put a face to the gay and lesbian person and humanize it in many ways,” Castillo said.

According to Castillo, there are studies showing that people who know a lesbian or gay person are less likely to discriminate against them. While this might be true, some people still don’t feel comfortable coming out in certain social situations.

Earlier in the summer, gay rights activists were behind an outing campaign targeted at closeted lesbian and gay Members and staff as the Senate geared up to look at the federal marriage amendment.

“Outing campaigns just push people more into the closet,” Castillo said, in reference to the events a few months ago. “It’s a personal journey for each person to decide what’s best for them and to not have others use it against them.”

Another point Frank made at the reception is that while there have been setbacks for lesbians and gays, there also has been progress.

“People who are hidden can’t fight prejudice very effectively,” Frank said. “It’s good for staffers to know that there are other members who are out. You have reasons for people to get together with people who have similar experiences.”

While there are more Democrats than Republicans in the group, there also are more men than women. Castillo said men tend to be more active or visible for whatever reason, and although there have been female board members in the past, there currently are no women on the LGCSA board.

However, with new Members and staff coming to D.C. for the next session of Congress, Castillo said the group hopes to increase its numbers.

“We hope to gain members as new staff comes to the Hill,” Castillo said. “Our group is always in a state of flux because of that — there’s turnover even when it’s not the end of a Congress. We try to keep a presence so that people know we’re here.”

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