This town has always been a (sometimes ambivalent) home for ambitious, closeted gay men and women. But now ballot measures, state legislatures, and federal judges are advancing LGBT rights by the day; more openly gay members join Congress every cycle; the issues they and their allies champion occupy pride of place on the political agenda; and even Washington culture has become entirely habituated. A change like this reaches beyond the surface topography, deep into the tectonic architecture of Washington. These shifts have brought about the rise of an entirely new class of D.C. power players. Here are the most influential.
Tammy Baldwin: U.S. Senator, D-Wis.
The ink was barely dry on her college diploma, Baldwin says, when she watched Geraldine Ferraro walk across the stage in July 1984 to accept the nomination for vice president. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, I can do anything,' " says Baldwin. She certainly took that thought and ran with it: In 2012, Baldwin became the first openly gay candidate elected to the U.S. Senate, and the first women to represent Wisconsin there. Raised by her grandparents in Madison, she was valedictorian of her high school class and double-majored in government and mathematics at Smith College. Now 51, Baldwin scored her first elected position (on the Dane County Board of Supervisors) when she was a 24-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She served in the Wisconsin state Assembly before being elected to the House of Representatives. Throughout her 14 years in Congress, Baldwin has built a reputation as a soft-spoken but urgent advocate for LGBT equality, affordable health care, and the middle class.
Jeremy Bernard: Social Secretary, White House
Bernard is both the first man and the first openly gay person to do this job, but he's not one to reflect on historical achievements. In almost three years since his appointment, he has not given a single interview. That hasn't kept friends of the 52-year-old San Antonio native from voicing their pride in seeing a gay man on the job, overseeing everything from the Easter Egg Roll to elaborate state dinners. They noticed when Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, was seated with his date, Jerome Fallon, at the head table with President Obama at one such dinner. "Who is invited sends important political messages that are sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle," says Richard Socarides, a longtime friend of Bernard's who was an adviser on gay issues in the Clinton White House. One of the few times Bernard has spoken about the job was last February, at an event convening his White House team and the social secretaries from several embassies. "The work we do is to bring people together," he said then. Before his appointment, he was on the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. In the 2008 campaign, Bernard and his then-partner Rufus Gifford raised tens of millions of dollars for Obama from the gay community, according to OpenSecrets. He was a superdelegate for Obama at the 2008 convention.
David Brock: Founder, Media Matters and American Bridge
Brock has a somewhat peculiar perspective on gay identity. Until the mid-1990s, he identified as a Republican, keeping his sexual orientation a secret. Since then, Brock, 51, has experienced changes not just in his own politics, but also in the city's. "Politics in Washington has always attracted a number of gay people, but it's become much easier to be yourself now," he says.
When he came to Washington in 1986, Brock was a conservative writer leading a dual existence as part of an underground network of gay conservatives who met in private residences. "It was a somewhat fearful and paranoid way of living," he recalls. "It was not easy to date. It was impossible to go out socially to have a drink in a gay bar—that was something you just didn't do for fear of being found out." Brock attracted the national spotlight for, among other things, breaking the "Troopergate" story, which later led Paula Jones to file a lawsuit against Bill Clinton. The story was published in the conservative magazine The American Spectator in 1993, bringing its author personal scrutiny along with public praise. Under pressure, Brock came out in an interview with Howard Kurtz published in The Washington Post in 1994 and hasn't really looked back. "I ended up in a place where who I am personally came into alignment with my politics," he says. He became a Democrat, in part thanks to what he saw as the party's principles of social tolerance.
Beyond his personal experience, Brock—who grew up in Wood-Ridge, N.J., and graduated from the University of California (Berkeley) with a degree in history—says the Washington political world is an unusually difficult place to be gay. "People are just more concerned about what other people think about them here," he says. "The city revolves a lot around perception, and that's why I think historically it has been a harder place to be gay. It's perhaps the last place where people are comfortable being themselves."
Guy Cecil: Executive Director, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
Perhaps no Democratic Party operative is as important in 2014 as Cecil. The University of Florida graduate and Miami native is in charge of electing Democratic Senate candidates—and retaining his party's control of the upper chamber. That's no easy task in a midterm election when the electoral map is tilted in the GOP's favor. But Cecil, 39, who was Sen. Michael Bennet's chief of staff before taking the DSCC's reins, is among the most respected strategists in his party. It's no wonder many observers consider him a sure bet to become one of Hillary Clinton's chief masterminds should the former secretary of State run in 2016.
David Cicilline: U.S. Representative, Rhode Island's 1st District
As one of a handful of openly gay members of the House, Democratic Rep. Cicilline, 52, feels a special responsibility to work on equality issues, including sponsoring legislation to end discrimination in the workplace for LGBT people and fighting for marriage for all. He grew up in Providence and Narragansett, R.I., earning degrees from Brown University and Georgetown University Law Center. Cicilline gained his political stripes in the state Legislature before serving as the first openly gay mayor of Providence and then winning a House seat in 2010. Since then and in the aftermath of the recession, he's focused on the economy, protecting the social safety net, and trying to boost manufacturing. "Of course, when you come to any job, you bring your life experiences," he says. "I come here as an Italian-American, as a Jew, and as an openly gay man, but mostly I come here as a Rhode Islander."
Steven Elmendorf: President, Elmendorf Ryan
Elmendorf, 53, counts the Senate's passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as his greatest success in the private sector. He worked the issue extensively in the 1990s while on Majority Leader Dick Gephardt's staff. Now president of the all-Democratic lobbying firm Elmendorf Ryan, he lobbied lawmakers to pass the legislation and was shocked at the shift in lawmakers' opinions over two decades. "It's pretty amazing how the world has changed," he says. Active in the gay community, Elmendorf is chairman of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which aims to elect gay lawmakers. He's also involved with Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, a clinic that focuses on helping HIV/AIDS victims. A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Elmendorf described his graduate school as working on Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign.
Eric Fanning: Undersecretary of the Air Force
Fanning, 45, became the Defense Department's highest-ranking openly gay official in 2013 when he did a six-month stint as the acting Air Force secretary. Now he serves as the Air Force's undersecretary. Fanning's sexuality shaped his career, at times limiting his options. Having grown up in a military family, he cites a policy that banned gays from openly serving as "one of the reasons I never [enlisted]." It was difficult for Fanning, a Dartmouth grad from Michigan, to work in previous Defense Department roles when "there was discrimination for one part of the organization." After the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," he says he watched the opinions of senior uniformed leaders change as their troops started serving openly.
Joseph H. Gale: Judge, U.S. Tax Court
If you are a high-profile gay couple in Washington, who best to marry you than the first openly gay federal judge? That was the scenario in June 2012 when Gale, a U.S. Tax Court judge, officiated at the wedding of Mary Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Gale, 60, was nominated by President Clinton in 1996 and then named to a second 15-year term by President Obama in 2011. During his latest nomination hearing, he thanked his partner, Will Hopkins, "whose love, support, and wise counsel have been a bedrock for me over those years." After graduating from Princeton University in 1976, Gale returned to his home state to earn a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1980.
Chad Griffin: President, Human Rights Campaign
Since June 2012, Griffin has led the Human Rights Campaign, which bills itself as the nation's largest LGBT civil-rights organization. A member of the Clinton White House communications team at age 19, Griffin, now 40, helped found the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which sponsored the federal court challenge to California's Proposition 8. Raised in Arkadelphia, Ark., the Georgetown University alum is especially passionate about advocating for young people. "My own experience with this is growing up in a small town in Arkansas," he says. "I fully understand what it's like to be a closeted LGBT young person in this country."
Steven Gunderson: President, Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities
Gunderson became the first openly gay Republican representative in 1994 when he was outed on the House floor by socially conservative Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., during a harsh screed deemed so nasty it was stricken from the Congressional Record. Gunderson refused to let Dornan drive him from his seat and continued to represent his rural Wisconsin district until 1997. "The last thing we needed [at that time] was the stereotype of an openly gay guy being a wimp," he says. Gunderson got his start in politics in the state Legislature at 23 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and he's perhaps best known for casting the only Republican vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Now president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, Gunderson, 62, is also the first openly gay board member for both the Gettysburg Theological Seminary and Lutheran World Relief.
Mary Kay Henry: President, Service Employees International Union
A longtime advocate for gay rights and universal health care, Henry, 56, is watching a lot of progress happen all at once. SEIU strongly supported the Affordable Care Act and is now a key player in the drive for enrollment; at roughly the same time, the courts and the Obama administration have set off a sea change in public policy for the LGBT community. "I think of it as a long haul where the breakthroughs are happening in this moment," she says. SEIU has teamed with LGBT advocates in key states to promote Obamacare enrollment, following a test run over the summer to "get sharp" on the particular concerns of gay patients, many of whom haven't come out to their doctors. Henry grew up in Detroit and went to Michigan State University.
Fred Hochberg: Chairman and President, Export-Import Bank of the United States
"The Night Ted Kennedy Kissed Me." That's the working title that Hochberg—the 61-year-old openly gay head of the Export-Import Bank—has in mind for any autobiography he'd pen. The late Sen. Kennedy, an LGBT-rights advocate whom Hochberg calls one of his heroes, planted a memorable kiss on both Hochberg and his partner after a fundraiser 20 years ago. Hochberg came to Washington four years later to serve in the Small Business Administration and is now taking advantage of the travel that comes with his Ex-Im post to reach out to LGBT communities in places like Mozambique. Hochberg grew up in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and received his undergraduate degree from New York University and his M.B.A. from Columbia University.
Chris Hughes: Publisher and Editor in Chief, The New Republic
Hughes does not have the résumé of a typically ambitious 30-year-old. After growing up in Hickory, N.C., he wound up with a scholarship to Harvard, where he met Mark Zuckerberg and became one of the founders of Facebook. Hughes eventually left Facebook for a job with Sen. Barack Obama in 2007, where he helped bring a social-media sensibility to the winning presidential campaign. He bought a majority stake in The New Republic in 2012. But he isn't completely done with politics: His husband, Sean Eldridge (with whom he is a fixture on the social circuit), is running for Congress from upstate New York.
Michael Kaiser: President, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Kaiser, 60, says he has never felt mistreated because of his sexuality in the years since he became president of the Kennedy Center in 2001, or even before. "Washington is a cosmopolitan town. I think this is a city with a lot of smart, educated people who care more about what you do than about who you love." That was particularly true when the media got wind of Kaiser's wedding last August: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a fan of the opera, Kaiser says—presided over his marriage to partner John Roberts. Kaiser will step down from his role as president to run the Kennedy Center's DeVos Institute of Arts Management when it relocates to the University of Maryland in September. He has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's in management. He founded a consulting firm, Kaiser Associates, which is still based in D.C.
Elaine D. Kaplan: Judge, U.S. Court of Federal Claims
Kaplan, 58, was nominated to the court, which hears civil cases against the government, by President Obama last year and confirmed by the Senate in September. Before her appointment, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who graduated from Georgetown University Law Center, served as acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, where she was the highest-ranking out lesbian in the Obama administration. At OPM, according to The Advocate, she helped extend marriage-related benefits to gay and lesbian federal employees after the Supreme Court declared part of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
Sean Patrick Maloney: U.S. Representative, New York's 18th District
Maloney's youngest daughter, Essie, wanted three things from Santa this Christmas: Legos, Nerf guns, and a wedding for her two dads. Maloney's partner, Randy Florke, a prominent interior decorator, intercepted his daughter's letter to the North Pole and popped the question on Christmas Day. Now, the 47-year-old New York lawmaker will become the second sitting congressman to marry his same-sex partner (former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts was the first). Maloney, a moderate "New Democrat," was elected to the House in 2012, but he's had a long career in public life that includes several LGBT milestones. As the country's first openly gay assistant to the president, he served in the White House when Bill Clinton became the first president to recognize antigay violence as a hate crime, after the murder of Matthew Shepard. It was a personal moment for Maloney, who attended Shepard's funeral on Clinton's behalf and later represented Shepard's family as a private attorney. "Fighting alongside the Shepard family was a humbling experience and why I dedicated my life to fighting injustice, wherever it occurs," Maloney says. Born to an Irish-Catholic-American family, he grew up in New Hampshire and earned a B.A. and law degree from the University of Virginia. Between the two, he volunteered for a year in the slums of Peru, working with Jesuit priests.
Philip A. McNamara: Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, Homeland Security Department
McNamara, 39, a Massachusetts native, represents the connective tissue between DHS, other agencies, and the states. He has helped the government navigate the intersection of immigration and LGBT policy: He served as LGBT liaison to an interagency working group on deportation policy created in 2011, and oversaw cases involving gay binational couples. The University of Massachusetts graduate, who was a senior official with the Democratic National Committee before joining the Obama administration, is also acting chief of staff at DHS.
Ken Mehlman: Global Head of Public Affairs, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts
Mehlman, 47, has long been known as a top Republican operative, serving as campaign manager of President Bush's 2004 reelection and as chairman of the Republican National Committee. But it wasn't until 2010 that Mehlman publicly revealed he was gay and put his political savvy and Republican contacts to work on behalf of marriage equality. He now serves on the board of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is challenging California's same-sex marriage ban. On his website, he says, "I believe in freedom, I believe in family values, and this is consistent with that." Mehlman earned his law degree at Harvard and a bachelor's degree at Franklin & Marshall College.
Michael Michaud: U.S. Representative, Maine's 2nd District
Michaud isn't the first House member to come out publicly, but the way he did it could turn out to be trailblazing. In November 2013, he penned an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, announcing, "Yes, I am gay. But why should it matter?" Michaud, who's running for governor of Maine—he would be America's first openly gay state leader—said he thought he'd save his opponents the trouble of raising questions through "whisper campaigns" and give voters a "simple, honest answer." Before entering politics, the Medway native worked for 29 years at Great Northern Paper, where he took a job after high school. Now in his sixth term in Congress, Michaud is the ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and seems to have said all he cares to say about his sexual orientation for the moment. As he wrote last fall, "I don't plan to make my personal life or my opponents' personal lives an issue in this campaign."
Tim Miller: Executive Director, America Rising
Miller, 32, is trying to professionalize and centralize the digging up of Democratic dirt. The GOP operative runs America Rising, launched in 2013 to research and track Democrats nationwide. The goal is to uncover the kinds of unsavory nuggets that can upend a race and catch politicians on camera endorsing unpopular ideas and issues. Years ago, such opposition research would surely have included a candidate's sexuality, but Miller says his group is focused on politicians' professional lives and he doesn't support the outing of public figures. Raised in Colorado, the graduate of George Washington University (where he did the basketball team's radio broadcasts) worked for Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential primary, ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman in 2012, and, later, the Republican National Committee. These days, he's antagonizing Democrats from the sidelines: Hillary Clinton and her potential 2016 run is his No. 1 target. Miller says being openly gay and Republican hasn't much affected his career. "Some told me to be prepared for it to be an issue in past political campaigns, but it never has," he says. "A big takeaway for me as I've encountered political operatives who are worried that being open might have a negative impact on their career is that you don't need to hide to be successful, and it wouldn't be worth it, regardless."
Mark Pocan: U.S. Representative, Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District
Pocan followed in the steps of his openly gay predecessor and fellow Democrat Tammy Baldwin when he filled her House seat after she won election to the Senate. Now in his second term, the 49-year-old lawmaker from Kenosha is cochairman of the House's LGBT Equality Caucus. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation to ensure that veterans who were discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" because of their sexual orientation receive the honor and recognition they deserve. But Pocan's focus isn't limited to LGBT issues: The graduate of the University of Wisconsin (Madison) also serves on the highly influential House Budget Committee and has fought against sequestration and for a minimum-wage increase. He views himself as a progressive voice in Congress who also understands the needs of businesses. "My goal is to help change the focus of the conversation in Washington from austerity to prosperity," Pocan says.
Jared Polis: Representative, Colorado's 2nd District
Since he arrived in Congress five years ago, there's been nothing remotely back-bench about Polis. The Colorado Democrat and fundraising star is one of four national chairmen of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he's a top contender to take over when Steve Israel leaves the chairmanship. Polis, 38, was the first openly gay, nonincumbent man elected to Congress, and he and his partner announced the birth of their son in 2011, making him the first openly gay parent in Congress. "It's never been an issue," he says, regarding his dealings with fellow lawmakers. A millionaire, the Boulder-born and San Diego-raised Polis founded or cofounded several successful ventures, including an electronic greeting-card site and ProFlowers, which he was able to sell for up to $300 million. In Washington, he has focused on health care, immigration reform, education, and technology issues, as well as ending the federal prohibition against marijuana. A key assignment is his seat on the Rules Committee.
Gene Robinson: Bishop, Episcopal Church
Robinson's 2003 consecration in New Hampshire as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church divided the global Anglican Church and made him the target of death threats. Since retiring in January 2013, Robinson, 66, has lived a somewhat quieter life, advocating for LGBT rights and other issues as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "My real interest is: What is the right relationship between the church, the synagogue, the mosque, and society?" he says. Robinson, who was born and raised in Lexington, Ky., holds degrees from the University of the South and the General Theological Seminary.
Hilary Rosen: Managing Director, SKDKnickerbocker
The 55-year-old Rosen has been dealing with the overlapping worlds of sexual orientation and political influence since she came out while studying at George Washington University in the 1970s. She says that getting the "gay issue" out of the way at such a young age freed her to focus on her career as one of Washington's most influential political consultants. A frequent CNN commentator, the New Jersey native has run strategic communications for lobbying firm SKDKnickerbocker since 2010. Being out "allows you to focus on doing what you want to do, as opposed to worrying about it," she says.
Kyrsten Sinema: U.S. Representative, Arizona's 9th Congressional District
Sinema can claim a lot of firsts: Congress's first and only openly bisexual member and its first woman to complete an Ironman triathlon. But she doesn't dwell on those milestones, she says. She is much more interested in being the first person to represent Arizona's new 9th Congressional District. Born in Tucson to a conservative Mormon family that was once forced to live in an abandoned gas station without running water or electricity, Sinema graduated from high school as valedictorian at age 16. After completing her undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University, she went on to earn a master's, a law degree. and a Ph.D. from Arizona State University. Sinema, 37, served in both the Arizona House and Senate before being elected to Congress in 2012.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this profile incorrectly said that Sinema is an atheist.
Tammy Smith: Brigadier General, Army Reserve
Smith is trained to jump out of C-130 aircraft in full combat gear under the veil of night. She became a jumpmaster and a senior parachutist after working as the lone woman in a class of 60 (only 23 of whom graduated). She's also the first openly gay U.S. flag officer, but she sees herself as a broader role model for women and aspiring leaders. "In my role as a woman and in the LGBT community, I'm simply giving an example that if you perform well, you will be given the opportunity to have greater responsibility." Smith, 51, is the director of Human Capital Core Enterprise for the Army Reserve. Originally from Oakland, Ore., she holds degrees from the University of Phoenix, Webster University, and the U.S. Army War College.
Andrew Sullivan: Editor, The Dish
Sullivan, an Irish Catholic raised in Britain and educated at Oxford and Harvard, visited the Vietnam Memorial during the AIDS epidemic, when he was The New Republic's wunderkind editor (and was HIV positive). He told his parents that if the wall commemorated AIDS deaths instead of war casualties, it'd be six times as high. Living openly as a gay man in that era had an indelible impact on him as an influential conservative-yet-liberal blogger, who is now heralded as the first major champion of gay marriage. "I feel an incredible bond to D.C.," says Sullivan, 50, who is now editor of The Dish, "and to gay Washington as a city within the city."
Mark Takano: U.S. Representative, California's 41st District
Takano's election demonstrates how much attitudes toward gay politicians have changed in the last 20 years. After losing a close race to Republican Ken Calvert in 1992, he sought a rematch in 1994. He was outed by an ally of his opponent, and the GOP campaign attacked the Democrat's "agenda." But by the time Takano ran again in 2012, his sexual orientation was a nonissue. Now, the 53-year-old Japanese-American represents Riverside, Calif., the city where he grew up and served on the board of the local community college for more than two decades. Takano was also a schoolteacher: He holds a teaching certificate and another advanced degree from the University of California (Riverside), along with his bachelor's degree from Harvard University.
Matt Thompson: Editorial Project Director, NPR
In spearheading projects such as Project Argo (to produce local news) and Code Switch (coverage of race), Thompson, 33, has helped draft the model for the future of the newsroom, an issue he's spent the better part of a decade grappling with. The Harvard grad grew up in Orlando, Fla., and came to D.C. in 2010 after stints at newspapers in California and Minnesota. He runs with the DC Front Runners, a gay and lesbian club. "There is something extraordinary about the fealty and fellowship," he says of the gay sports scene in the city. "It embedded me in a part of the community right away."
Randi Weingarten: President, American Federation of Teachers
When Weingarten became president of the American Federation of Teachers in 2008, she also became the first openly gay person to be elected to lead a national labor union in America. Weingarten, 56, who had previously headed New York's United Federation of Teachers for more than a decade, made waves nationally during her battle with then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who instituted controversial teacher evaluations at the D.C. Public Schools. Weingarten then waged a successful campaign to unseat Rhee's boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty. The Rockland County, N.Y., native holds degrees from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the Cardozo School of Law in New York City.