November 4, 2013

More politicians braving don’t-vote-gay mentality

Homosexuality is gaining acceptance in some states, but it’s still a tricky political issue and there are few gays in top elected positions.

By Kevin Miller
Washington Bureau Chief

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.

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Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said, “I know Mike well and think this is absolutely typical of him. He has always trusted the people of Maine.”

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo. who also is gay, posted on Twitter: “Congratulations to my colleague

2012 Associated Press File Photo

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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.

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