Rep. Mark Pocan
For most of my adult life, I have been fortunate enough to be accepted for who I am by my family, my friends, and my community. My home, Madison, Wis., is a diverse and inclusive city with a robust history of progressivism. I have enjoyed more than seven years of marriage to my husband, Phil. And while I worked in the state Assembly for 14 years, my sexual orientation was never brought up as an issue.
Yet while my career in public service has been marked by tolerance and acceptance, my entry into the field came after a much darker moment in my life. Shortly after I graduated from college, I was gay-bashed and beaten unconscious with a baseball bat. It was a scary, disturbing, and life-changing experience—never before had I felt threatened simply for being myself. I faced a choice: Live in fear, or become a fighter.
I chose the latter, and decided to run for public office. It has been a tremendous honor to work as a public official and serve as a voice for people who are too often made to feel less than equal, merely because of who they are and who they love. My fighting spirit proved useful after Wisconsin amended the definition of marriage and instilled hate into its constitution. Instead of hanging my head, I worked with equality advocates to pass a law in the Wisconsin state Assembly that provided 43 legal protections to same-sex couples—the first set of such laws in a state with a constitutional amendment.
Now as a member of Congress and the cochair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, I have been given the opportunity to continue the push toward full equality at a time in history when concrete progress is possible. Having already witnessed the Supreme Court send the Defense of Marriage Act into the history books, I look forward to working with my colleagues, from both sides of the aisle, on continuing to move forward and pass legislation such as the Employment Non- Discrimination Act, and a bill I introduced with Rep. Charles Rangel, the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which will ensure we honor LGBT veterans who have selflessly served our country. The same is true for my home state. I will not rest until Wisconsin also recognizes the rights of all of its citizens to be with the person they love.
Today, when people ask if we will have equality in our lifetime, I answer confidently that it is not a matter of "if," but "when." And I hope to be a part of making it happen as soon as possible.
Rep. Mark Takano
As someone who is both an ethnic minority and openly gay, I often talk about how simply being who I am has given me a double awareness of the vulnerability that some Americans may be facing. The experiences that I've had throughout my life have informed my politics, and I've found that I'm drawn to people who are marginalized and likely to be forgotten. Those life experiences that helped shaped my political beliefs are with me in every position I take and every vote that I cast—whether it be in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, strengthening Social Security and Medicare, or improving our nation's education system.
Every member of Congress is sent to Washington to represent all of their constituents, regardless of their age, race, social standing, or sexual orientation, and I believe that America should be a place where everybody can dream and nobody is left out. With 2013 being a momentous year for the LGBT community, I'm more hopeful now than ever that that dream is becoming a reality.
Rep. Jared Polis
When I was elected to serve the people of Colorado's 2nd Congressional District in 2008, I was the first openly gay man in the history of the House to win as a nonincumbent. While being gay has provided a somewhat unique perspective navigating Capitol Hill, it has in no way defined me as a member of Congress. My experience has been equally shaped by my identity as a Coloradoan, a Jew, a father, son, and entrepreneur.
While having openly gay members of Congress is extremely important in advancing the cause of freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families, and providing role models, my openness has relatively little impact on my day-to-day relationships with other elected members of the House. It does, however, help raise awareness and inform other members that LGBT individuals remain unequal in the eyes of the law and are often denied the chance for a fair shot simply because of who they are or who they love.
Since I have been elected to Congress, the number of out members of Congress has doubled, and the LGBT Equality Caucus, which I cochair, has grown to more than 100 members of Congress. With the exception of the eight out LGBT members of Congress, these are allied elected officials committed to freedom and equality for LGBT people and families. During my tenure in Congress, we have repealed the discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members, passed an LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes bill and a Violence Against Women bill, and watched the most pernicious element of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act fall under Supreme Court review.
But the fight for equal rights for LGBT individuals under the law remains far from over. I am hopeful that Congress will soon approve two bills I am honored to champion: The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which passed the Senate last year and has 200 bipartisan sponsors in the House, would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits any school program or activity that condones discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity from receiving federal assistance. I am also optimistic that Congress will pass the Respect for Marriage Act championed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, legislation that would fully repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and ensure that legally married same-sex couples are guaranteed their rights and protections regardless of where they live.
As members of Congress—regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity—increasingly recognize the need to ensure LGBT Americans enjoy full federal rights and protections, these important pieces of legislation will finally pass. It is personally exciting for me to be here at this point in our history when we are on the threshold of legal equality.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney
In 2012, I defeated an incumbent in one of the country's most competitive districts to become the first openly gay member of Congress from New York. The values I share with my neighbors in the Hudson Valley are much greater than our differences. I get my kids ready for school just like every other parent in the Hudson Valley, dragging them out of bed, making them breakfast, and double-checking to ensure that left shoes end up on left feet. At night, I pick them up at soccer practice and basketball games. Trust me: No matter the family, morning tantrums are all the same.
The 18th District could be just about any district in the country. Folks care about Medicare, taxes, and jobs. They care much more about their community than the political games going on in Washington. Folks care much more about protecting Medicare and making sure their neighbors can put food on the table than fighting over gay marriage. They took a chance on me because they were fed up with tea-party extremists in Congress, and they wanted someone who shares their values. They wanted someone who would fight to get results that would make things better for their small businesses, families, and communities.
Still, in recent years, our country has made historic progress toward equality—a fight for which many of us have been on the front lines for decades. Just last year, we achieved marriage equality in eight states, won two Supreme Court cases, and passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate.
LGBT folks are making progress in moderate districts all across the country—in our city councils, state legislatures, and right here in Congress. I am proud to be the first openly gay member of Congress from New York, but I can't wait for the day when we run out of firsts. I can't wait for the day when students are no longer bullied in school, employees are judged by the quality of their work instead of who they are or who they love, and every state stands behind loving couples who want to spend their lives together.
We have a long way to go. But if a gay man can proudly stand with his loving partner and three children to take on an incumbent and win, then we're certainly on our way.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin
After a hard-fought 2012 race for the Senate, the people of Wisconsin made history. On Jan. 3, 2013, I was officially sworn in to the United States Senate. I am proud to have the honor to be the first woman senator from Wisconsin and the first openly gay member of the United States Senate. But I didn't run to make history; I ran to make a difference.
Over the past year, during my first year in the Senate, we have seen our country take strong steps forward on the issues of equal opportunity and fairness for all Americans. One thing is clear: People's views on equality are changing because they believe LGBT family members, friends, and neighbors deserve to be treated like everyone else in the United States.
The debate over marriage equality is about fairness: about whether gay and lesbian Americans deserve to be treated just like their family members, their friends, and their neighbors. It's about opportunity: about whether every American gets to dream the same dreams, chase the same ambitions, and have the same shot at success. And it's about freedom: the freedom to love, the freedom to commit, the freedom to build a family. Most of all, it's about whether the progress our country has made will be reflected in our laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions in June that reflected the progress we have witnessed across our country, but there is still more work to do to make our country more equal. And further progress is within our reach. Think of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which passed the Senate recently with overwhelming bipartisan support. Now, ENDA deserves an up-or-down vote in the House so that we have the opportunity to rise above the ugly reality that, in more than two dozen states, it's legal to discriminate against LGBT employees. Think of the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would allow LGBT children to go to school worried about math tests and swim meets, not bullying and harassment. Think of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, so that LGBT Americans who work to support their families in the civil service can rest assured that their partners will enjoy benefits like health insurance and retirement plans.
And we don't just want to live in a country where our rights are respected under the law. We want to live in a country where we are respected for who we are, where we enjoy freedom and opportunity not because the Supreme Court gave us permission but because we're Americans, and that's all there is to it.
Special Report: Gay Washington
This article appears in the January 25, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as In Their Own Words.