Gay-rights advocates have made notable advances in recent years. Congress repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for serving in the military. Gallup polling showed for the first time in 2011 that a majority of Americans favored gay marriage. A growing number of states—Maryland made it eight this month—along with the District of Columbia, have legalized same-sex marriage.
But for the small cohort of openly gay members of Congress—four in the House, none in the Senate—the 2012 elections pose a potential setback. It’s possible that only one of them could return next year.
The retirement of Rep. Barney Frank, the acerbic Massachusetts Democrat, will deplete the group of its lone lawmaker with a national profile. The second-most-senior gay member, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is making a bid for a Senate seat. Analysts consider her race a toss-up, meaning that she, too, could be gone from the corridors of the Capitol. A third openly gay lawmaker, freshman Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., trails his GOP opponent, according to a recent poll.
Which would leave only Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
“As the dean of the [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] Caucus, it would be awfully lonely to be dean by myself,” he laughed in an interview this week.
Polis and other gay-rights activists aren’t sounding the alarm—yet. They hope that Baldwin will break ground in the Senate, that Cicilline will prevail, and that a new crop of gay candidates will replenish, if not expand, the ranks.
“It’s a time of risk,” Polis acknowledged. “We could build significantly where we’re at—or fall behind. The swing is anywhere from one to seven members.” He said he remained “cautiously optimistic” that at least as many gay lawmakers will take the oath in 2013 as hold office now.
Rick Jacobs wants to make sure. A gay and liberal activist, Jacobs is hosting a fund-raiser at his Hollywood home next month, which Polis plans to attend, to raise money for Mark Takano, one of the openly gay congressional hopefuls. Jacobs said that maintaining relationships between members is critical. “When we’re actually at the table, it makes a very big difference,” he said. “You’re staring somebody in the eye and saying, ‘No, I don’t support you. I don’t think you’re equal to me.’ That’s very different.”
For many gay-rights activists, Baldwin’s ascent to the Senate remains the top priority. “These opportunities don’t come along very often for us to break a glass ceiling,” said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a group dedicated to electing more LGBT officials.
In Rhode Island, Cicilline’s reelection was never supposed to be in question. He represents a Democratic stronghold that redistricting made even stronger, a district that President Obama carried with 67 percent of the vote.
And yet, Cicilline’s own approval rating has plummeted to an abysmal 15 percent, according to a recent Brown University poll. The reason? He is a former mayor of Providence, where bankruptcy has become a watchword, and voters hold him responsible for that city’s fiscal malaise, said Marion Orr, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University. “Anyone looking at those numbers would have real concerns about Cicilline’s viability as a candidate for reelection,” Orr said.
The upside for 2012, Dison said, is a potential wave of new gay candidates. The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund has identified as priorities electing four openly gay challengers, including one Republican. Each has a viable path to Washington, though none is unimpeded:
• Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan is seeking to succeed Baldwin in Wisconsin. He raised $274,000 in 2011 but faces two primary opponents.
• In California, mapmakers carved out a new southland seat that community-college trustee Takano hopes to fill. Takano, who would be the first openly gay minority member of Congress, is a top recruit of the House Democratic leadership, a member of the “red-to-blue” program. Voter registration in the new district leans Democratic, but Takano faces a strong Republican challenger in Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione.
• On paper, GOP challenger Richard Tisei, a former state senator, shouldn’t have much of a shot against Democratic Rep. John Tierney. The district is in Massachusetts, a state that hasn’t sent a Republican to the House since the 1990s. But Tierney has been tarred by a criminal case involving his brother-in-law, who was recently found guilty of racketeering and illegal gaming. And Tisei raised more than $300,000 in the fourth quarter of 2011.
• In Arizona, former state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is looking to become the first openly bisexual member of Congress. She is running in a likely three-person primary against the former chair of the state Democratic Party and the Democratic leader of the state Senate.
That list could expand further. In Arizona, local sheriff Paul Babeu, a GOP congressional candidate, recently acknowledged he is gay after an ex-boyfriend alleged that the sheriff and his lawyer had threatened to have him deported. And two other openly gay Democrats are exploring bids to succeed former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who resigned in January.
“We have a lot of opportunity,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights advocacy group, “and at the same time, we have to guard against going backwards.”
This article appears in the March 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.