WASHINGTON — With his announcement Monday, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine joined a small but growing contingent of gay and lesbian politicians nationwide who are opening up about their sexuality.
Yet the media attention surrounding Michaud’s acknowledgment that he is gay underscores the reality that, despite the gay community’s dramatic legal and electoral gains in recent years, sexual orientation is still a tricky topic for politicians to navigate.
“I think we are probably a long way away from it completely being a non-issue,” said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who has written numerous books on the topic. “That said, in virtually any state in the country, you can find places where gay and lesbian candidates do well.”
For sheer numbers, relatively few lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people hold national or statewide elective offices.
Only seven members of the U.S. House and Senate – now including Michaud – are openly gay, lesbian or bisexual, which translates into just 1.4 percent of Congress’ 535 voting seats.
And there have been no openly gay governors in the U.S. – a fact that’s sure to intensify the national spotlight on Maine next year as Michaud seeks to unseat Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Despite those small numbers, past and present gay members of Congress said their sexual orientation was rarely, or never, an issue in their work in Washington.
Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., became the first member of Congress to declare voluntarily that he is gay. While he acknowledged that he worried about the possible consequences of coming out in 1987, Frank said Monday that “it had no negative effect with my colleagues.”
Frank, who retired this year, predicted that Michaud’s experience will be the same.
“It will not detract at all from his ability” to work in Congress, he said.
Instead, Frank said Michaud – a moderate “blue dog” Democrat and former mill worker – has helped to show “that gay people are just like everybody else.”
The impact of that will be even greater if Michaud is elected governor, he said.
“What Mike did (Monday) is very important for the gay teenager in northern Maine, where he is best known and where he is so well-respected and admired,” said Frank, who last year became the first member of Congress to marry his same-sex partner, Jim Ready of Ogunquit.
Rep. Jared Polis, an openly gay Democrat from Colorado, said his sexual orientation has never affected his working relationships in Congress. And while the number of openly gay or lesbian lawmakers in Washington is still disproportionately small, he said, the same thing is unfortunately true of women and minorities.
He said the trend is moving toward greater acceptance.
“The younger generation is already there and the older generations are catching up,” Polis said.
According to the Gallup polling firm, the percentage of Americans who believe that same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual married couples doubled from 1996 to this year, from 27 to 54.
Americans who not long ago felt compelled to remain “closeted” have achieved significant victories in recent years, due in no small part to their increasing political clout at the state and national levels.
In addition to gaining the right to wed in Maine and 13 other states – a right upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer – openly gay and lesbian individuals can now serve in the military.
On Monday, a bill to ban discrimination against workers or job applicants who are LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – took a step forward in the U.S. Senate, likely setting the stage for passage this week. The measure has been debated for more than a decade but has never passed in the Senate.
Even though there are hundreds of openly gay office holders nationwide, LGBT candidates have made relatively slow progress in winning election to Congress or as governor.
Haider-Markel, at the University of Kansas, said more openly gay candidates are being elected to local and state legislative positions. As “that bench is being built up,” voters will see more gay candidates for higher office, he said.
But in some states, particularly in the South and Midwest, openly gay candidates for statewide or congressional seats will still have a difficult time getting elected.
“What we know (from research) is that roughly one-quarter of the population in a general-population survey will say they would be unlikely or less likely to vote for an openly gay candidate,” Haider-Markel said. But most openly gay candidates are Democrats, and “when you break the numbers down, you see those individual voters are people who are very unlikely to vote for a Democrat in the first place.”
Growing acceptance of LGBT politicians can be seen even in demographics that have traditionally been more conservative on social issues, such as Catholic voters. Michaud is part of a sizable Franco-American Catholic community in Maine.
“The most recent surveys have shown that Catholic attitudes have shifted pretty much along the same lines as we have seen in the general population,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute of Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Schneck said one recent survey showed that Catholics were actually more inclined than the general population to support “civil marriages” between same-sex couples and full inclusion in society of LGBT individuals.
Schneck said that’s likely attributable, at least in part, to the fact that many Catholics live in more liberal northeastern states.
Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island who is gay, cheered Michaud’s announcement and what he suggested are its broader implications.
“Every elected official who comes out helps bring our country closer to a day when every American will be treated equally,” Cicilline said in a prepared statement. “I applaud the courage and honesty that congressman Michaud demonstrated today, and his confidence that the next governor of Maine will be chosen on their merits rather than their sexual orientation.”
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