Obama names three more gay ambassadors; nearly doubles Clinton’s LGBT appointments

President Obama this month nominated three openly gay men for posts as ambassadors to Spain, Denmark, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

President Obama this month nominated three openly gay men for posts as ambassadors to Spain, Denmark, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

On June 14, the president named James Costos to take over as ambassador to Spain and Rufus Gifford to become ambassador to Denmark. On June 10, he named Daniel Baer to serve as ambassador to the 57-nation security group that cooperates to address concerns over such matters as border security, human trafficking, and the illegal distribution of weapons.

Baer was originally appointed to the State Department, serving as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, working on human rights and labor issues. This is his second appointment from President Obama.

Costos and Gifford were both involved in raising money for Obama’s re-election last year, giving or bundling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Costos is vice president for global licensing and retail for HBO; Gifford was finance director of the re-election campaign.

Costos and his partner, interior designer Michael Smith, hosted a fundraiser for Obama at their home last year. First Lady Michelle Obama attended the fundraiser; she also selected Smith to redecorate the residential section of the White House.

The Washington Post “In the Loop” column has speculated for weeks that one of Obama’s first and top picks, John Berry, who recently stepped down as head of the Office of Personnel Management, could soon be appointed ambassador to Australia. The column reported this week that another gay fundraiser, James Brewster of Chicago, might also be in line for an appointment.

Prior to this month’s nominations, openly gay people had been appointed to serve as ambassadors to relatively small countries, including Luxembourg, New Zealand, and Romania (the largest, at 22 million population). While Denmark’s population hovers around five million, Spain’s is more than 47 million.

The Human Rights Campaign applauded this week’s nominations and noted that Spain and Denmark are among the 13 countries in the world that have marriage equality.

Meanwhile, the full Senate on Thursday gave voice vote approval to

Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro, the president’s openly lesbian appointee to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

And the Senate Judiciary Committee this month held a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s openly gay nominee to serve as an assistant attorney general, heading up the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. Nominee Stuart Delery, who has served in an acting director capacity in the position for over a year, introduced his partner and their two sons, but was asked almost no questions by the committee.

If confirmed by the Senate, Delery will formally take over the position formerly held by Tony West held when he argued against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in a federal district court in 2011.

The new nominations this month bring to estimated 272 the number of appointments President Obama has made of openly LGBT people to his administration. That’s almost double the estimated 140 appointments of LGBT people by President Clinton during his two terms. President Obama was also the first president to appoint an openly transgender person to his administration.

About 50 of the Obama LGBT appointees serve in positions that are largely administrative. At least 30 are engaged in public affairs and media relations. Fourteen serve as legal counsel, including as legal counsel to the president. President Obama has also appointed openly LGBT people for the first time to such important entities as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Occupational Safety & Health Review Commission.

Most of Obama’s LGBT appointees serve in policy-oriented positions on a range of issues that are not specifically or even indirectly LGBT-related. They include advisory and policy positions on the environment, veterans’ affairs, helping communities affected by the auto industry downturn, drug control policy, and small business development.

Thirty-nine have required Senate confirmation and, so far, only one has failed to achieve that –Edward DuMont, the first openly gay person nominated to serve on a federal appeals bench.

Some of the increased number under the Obama administration is no doubt due to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s creation, in 2008, of a “Presidential Appointments Project.” The project is aimed specifically at “increasing LGBT appointees” and provides an easy mechanism for interested candidates to funnel their resumes into the right hands. A former Victory Fund President, Brian Bond, was among the first of Obama’s openly LGBT appointments. Bond served in Obama’s first term as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Seventy-five of Obama’s openly LGBT appointees serve in the White House or on presidential boards or commissions. The rest are spread out over 15 departments, 12 agencies, and the federal judiciary. After the White House itself, the Department of Education has the largest number of openly LGBT appointees (24), followed by the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services (both with 16).

Grant Colfax is director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, charged with coordinating the federal response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. Nancy Sutley is chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and, as such, is the president’s principle advisor on environmental policy and initiatives. Michael Camuñez, Assistant Secretary of Commerce, and Fred Hochberg, chairman of the Export-Import Bank, promote American exports.

Richard Socarides, who was arguably in the best position to influence the president on LGBT issues during the Clinton White House, says how much “influence” each has can be measured in a number of ways.

“Do they have an important policy job in their area,” asks Socarides, “or are they influential in terms of setting broad government policy?” It also matters, he notes, whether one is looking at influence on LGBT policy or other important issues. And some people measure influence by how quickly, easily, and often the person can speak to the president himself.

Here’s a look at what might be considered the top 12 most influential positions to which President Obama has nominated an openly LGBT person:

 

  1. Director of the Office of Personnel Management. Some LGBT activists were hopeful that President Obama would make the first appointment of an openly gay person to a cabinet level position. So far, that hasn’t happened, and his appointment of John Berry as OPM director probably came closest. OPM has more than 5,000 employees and manages personnel issues for some 2.8 million for U.S. federal civil service employees around the world. One of its biggest missions lately has been issuing guidelines to other federal agencies on how to handle furloughs associated with the current sequestration budget cuts. Berry announced his resignation April 11, one day before his four-year term expired. Unconfirmed reports suggest he may be in line for an ambassadorship. OPM’s openly lesbian general counsel Elaine Kaplan is serving now as interim acting director.
  2. Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice. There are 12 assistant attorneys general at DOJ. Delery has been appointed to head the department’s Civil Division, which represents the U.S. government in litigation involving such critical matters as national security, presidential powers, immigration, energy, banking, and consumer protection. Recently, the Division has defended the Affordable Care Act and the administration’s protection of information concerning the CIA use of drones to eliminate suspected terrorists. The DOJ Civil Division has 1,400 employees. Delery took the helm as Acting Assistant Attorney General in February 2012, but his official nomination to the post is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  3. Chairman, Export-Import Bank of the United States. Fred Hochberg was appointed to the position in Obama’s first term, and in March, the president reappointed him for a second stint. The Export-Import Bank provides financial credit and support to promote the sale of American goods to other countries. In doing so, the aim is to support and promote jobs in the United States. Under Hochberg, the bank says it “supported more than 255,000 American jobs” in FY 2012 with almost $36 billions of financing.
  4. Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Any federal bench provides the appointee with a potential for a lifetime of influence. The 179 judges appointed to a federal appeals court have influence over –not just a district but — several states. The 16 judges of the appeals court for the Federal Circuit have jurisdiction nationally on a limited variety of legal conflicts, including disputes over patents, trademarks, international trade agreements, government contracts, federal personnel, and veterans’ benefits. President Obama named a highly qualified openly gay man, Edward DuMont, to a Federal Circuit seat, but Republicans in the Senate, perhaps suspecting it would improve DuMont’s chances for eventual consideration as a Supreme Court candidate, refused to allow DuMont even a hearing. DuMont eventually withdrew his nomination.
  5. Director, White House Office of National AIDS Policy. This is the office charged with coordinating the federal response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. That includes implementing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy to reduce the incidence of HIV infection and make sure people with HIV receive proper medical care. In this position, Grant Colfax also serves as the president’s lead advisor on HIV-related domestic policy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men having sex with men account for 63 percent of new HIV infections, and the percentage is even higher (72 percent) for MSM 13 to 24 years old.
  6. Commissioner, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is the agency charged with enforcing federal laws against discrimination in the workplace. EEOC laws pertain to employers with more than 15 employees, including the federal government itself. While federal law does not proscribe sexual orientation-based discrimination in the workplace, an executive order signed by President Clinton prohibits such discrimination by the federal government. President Obama named Chai Feldblum as one of five commissioners who direct the EEOC’s work.
  7. Commissioner, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The eight-member commission is charged with guiding the federal government’s national civil rights policy and the enforcement of its civil rights laws. Among other things, it does research and analysis into potential discrimination in voting rights, and holds public hearings and issues reports on civil rights matters. President Obama named Roberta Achtenberg, a prominent appointee during the Clinton administration, to one of the eight seats.
  8. Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Federal Claims. This is another court with national jurisdiction and specialized cases. Its 16 active judges deliberate over lawsuits brought by private citizens against the U.S. government. President Clinton appointed Emily Hewitt to the court in 1998, and President Obama designated her as Chief Judge in March 2009. In March, President Obama nominated Elaine Kaplan, who is currently acting director of OPM, to the Federal Claims bench. If confirmed by the Senate, she will joint the bench in deciding lawsuits against the U.S. relating to taxes, government contracts, natural resources, and foreign governments.
  9. Social secretary, The White House. It may not sound like a power position, but insiders say it is. The White House Social Secretary works for the First Lady to plan all White House events, from small coffee receptions to large state dinners. In the world of power politics, an invitation to a White House party carries real value. For many invitees, it signals recognition from Washington’s most powerful entity that the guest has some political influence. And for those at the more select events, it’s an opportunity to be seen as part of a powerful elite. The Social Secretary, says Socarides, “basically decides who gets invited.” The current Social Secretary, Jeremy Bernard, is “the highest ranking gay person at the White House,” says Socarides. When appointed, in February 2011, Bernard became the first man –and the first openly gay person—to be appointed to the position.

10. Judge, U.S. District Court. There are more than 600 federal district court judges, but each has a lifetime appointment and serves as the first line of judgment in legal conflicts big and small. President Obama has nominated seven openly LGBT people to federal district court positions in six different districts. Five have already been confirmed (Paul Oetken and Alison Nathan in Manhattan, Michael Fitzgerald in Los Angeles, Pamela Chen in Brooklyn, and, on May 20, Michael McShane of Oregon). Two others are still pending (Nitza Quiñones Alejandro in Philadelphia and William Thomas in Miami).

  1. Associate counsel to the President. There are at least a dozen people identified as Associate Counsel to the President, and they fall below the Counselor, the Principal Deputy Counselor, and the Senior Counselor. They are not as high up as Karen Tramontano was when she served as Counselor to President Clinton’s Chief of Staff. But they do have influence, says Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president of the Center for American Progress, a group that has had a great deal of interaction with President Obama’s White House. The associate counsels have played key roles in a number of issues including the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and workplace discrimination, from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to drafting an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Two lesbians have held one of the positions thus far in the Obama White House: Allison Nathan, who is now a U.S. district court judge, and Kathleen Hartnett, who just left.

12. Director, Region IX, Health and Human Services. HHS has ten regional offices that address intergovernmental and external affairs and the president appoints the director of each region. Based in San Francisco, Region 9 covers the states of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii, as well as several territories. Each region serves as the HHS Secretary’s advisor and liaison to state and local governments and community organizations on matters of policy and programs. Herb Schultz, former senior advisor to then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is director of Region 9. The Center for American Progress’ Stachelberg says the job covers such matters as implementation of the Affordable Care Act, AIDS service delivery, and programs aimed at lesbian health. “Running that region,” she says, “is a huge responsibility.”

DOJ nominee gets GOP booster

Openly gay nominee Stuart Delery went into Tuesday’s confirmation hearing with at least one big endorsement: Republican former Solicitor General Paul Clement.

Paul Clement has endorsed Stuart Delery for DOJ post

Openly gay nominee Stuart Delery went into Tuesday’s confirmation hearing with at least one big endorsement: Republican former Solicitor General Paul Clement. Clement is the attorney the Republican House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). He signed onto a letter with 15 other former government officials expressing their “strong support” for Delery’s confirmation to serve as Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice Civil Division.

Delery has been acting assistant AG of the division since February 2012. President Obama nominated him in March to become permanent head of the division.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a confirmation hearing June 11 for Delery, who is openly gay, coupling it with the confirmation hearing of a more controversial nominee, Todd Jones. President Obama nominated Jones to serve as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Delery’s nomination was completely overshadowed by that of Jones who has hit some rough waters. Ranking Committee Minority leader Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has expressed concern about Jones’ responsiveness as interim ATF director in relation to the “Fast and Furious” gun sting operation.

All but one question at the June 11 hearing were directed to Jones.

For the LGBT community, Delery’s nomination is a high level appointment. If confirmed, he will formally take over the position most recently held by Tony West. It was under West, in 2009, that the DOJ filed a brief vigorously defending DOMA as a reasonable and necessary law. The brief (in Smelt v. US) stated that “DOMA does not discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of federal benefits” and “… does not distinguish among persons of different sexual orientations, but rather it limits federal benefits to those who have entered into the traditional form of marriage.” After a hue and cry from the LGBT community, the DOJ and West changed their position and, by February 2010, announced they would no longer defend DOMA as constitutional.

There are 12 assistant attorneys general at DOJ. As head of the Civil Division, Delery represents the U.S. government in litigation involving such critical matters as national security, presidential powers, immigration, energy, banking, and consumer protection. Recently, the Division has defended the Affordable Care Act and the administration’s protection of information concerning the CIA use of drones to eliminate suspected terrorists. The DOJ Civil Division has 1,400 employees.

Coming just days before the historic marriage oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court, Delery’s nomination March 21 received little notice. But it was a significant nomination, especially for the LGBT community. If confirmed by the Senate, it will make Delery, 45, the highest-ranking openly LGBT appointee at the DOJ and one of the highest ranking among the estimated 268 openly LGBT people whom President Obama has nominated or appointed since entering the White House in 2009.

In his brief opening statement, Delery introduced his family, including his partner Richard Gervase, and their two sons.

Delery is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Yale Law School and served as clerk to then Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and retired Justice Byron White.

He entered the practice of law as an associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Washington, D.C., and left the firm as a partner 10 years later to serve as chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General. He has spent the past two years in the Civil Division, most recently as acting assistant attorney general.

In a routine questionnaire provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Delery notes that he was a member of Gaylaw (Gay and Lesbian Attorneys of Washington) from 1996 to 2000. He also notes that he is a member of Rainbow Families DC, an educational and social network for LGBT families.

Among the speeches and talks he has given, Delery noted he delivered a keynote address to the White House LGBT Conference on Families in Minneapolis last year, talking about the DOJ’s work “of interest to families with gay and lesbian members.”

A video of that speech can be seen on YouTube.

In that speech, Delery talked about the Obama DOJ’s record on LGBT-related issues, including its decision to stop defending as constitutional Section 3 of DOMA, and to combat hate crimes, bullying, and harassment.

The questionnaire indicates Delery was involved as a panelist in about a half-dozen forums concerning LGBT-related legal issues at various law school forums as well as a forum of the Lavender Law Conference.

The questionnaire also notes that Delery served as a volunteer for President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, in both the primaries and general election, as well as the 2004 presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry.

Senator Al Franken was the only senator to refer to anything gay during the hearing, thanking Delery for his interim service and noting specifically his work on behalf of marriage equality and holding credit rating agencies accountable.

The Committee has not yet set a date to vote on Delery’s confirmation.

Immigration bill advances without provisions for same-sex couples

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration reform bill Tuesday, May 21 without voting on two amendments seeking to provide benefits to same-sex couples, and the room erupted into loud applause and cheers.

Chuck Schumer

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration reform bill Tuesday, May 21 without voting on two amendments seeking to provide benefits to same-sex couples, and the room erupted into loud applause and cheers.

Many LGBT immigration activists had been waiting for the two amendments, both from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Committee, to be offered Tuesday afternoon. But late Tuesday morning, Leahy surprised many when he stated that all the amendments from the Democratic side of the committee had been addressed.

That came close on the heels of reports that the White House had asked that the two LGBT-related amendments be set aside until the full Senate takes up the overall bill.

While some held out hope that perhaps Leahy still intended to bring up his amendments, he brought them up for discussion but then said he was withdrawing them due to heavy Republican opposition.

“I take the Republican sponsors of this important legislation at their word,” said Leahy, noting that many had said they would withdraw their support of the overall bill if the gay language was included.

“As a result …I will withhold calling for a vote but I will continue to fight for equality.”

An Associated Press article in the late morning said “two people familiar with Senate immigration deliberations say the White House has suggested [to Leahy] that it would be best to put off a controversy over gay marriage until a bill goes before the full Senate.”

AP said both sources spoke on the condition that its news report would not identify them.

An aide to the Judiciary Committee told this reporter that, while Leahy and President Obama speak often, Senator Leahy “does not discuss what they speak about in any given week.” The White House also had no comment about the AP report Tuesday.

“We are extremely disappointed that our allies did not put their anti-LGBT colleagues on the spot and force a vote on the measure that remains popular with the American people,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. He and others blamed a small group of Republican senators who had been vocal about their determination not to let the gay language onto the bill.

“Republicans have been signalling their posture on this for long time, and we can’t bring it up in committee because they’ve dug in their heels,” said Winnie Stachelberg, an openly gay executive vice president at the Center for American Progress. “They’ve created a scenario where the amendments can’t be offered.”

Immigration Equality Action Fund Executive Director Rachel Tiven said Democrats on the committee “caved to bullying by their Republican colleagues.”

“There should be shame on both sides of the political aisle today for lawmakers who worked to deny LGBT immigrant families a vote,” said Tiven. “Despite widespread support from business, labor, faith, Latino and Asian-American advocates, senators abandoned LGBT families without a vote.”

Immigration Equality spokesman Steve Ralls singled out Democrat Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

“We know that Senator Schumer remains uncommitted regarding a vote on the [gay] amendments and has not pushed back on GOP Senators on the Committee who are making threats about the amendment,” said Ralls. “Earlier this afternoon, Schumer would only say ‘no comment’ when asked if he would vote for the amendments.”

Schumer is considered a strong supporter of equal rights for LGBT people, and he is a co-sponsor of a stand-alone bill, the Uniting American Families Act. The UAFA provides the language for one of Leahy’s two gay-related amendments and seeks to allow a U.S. citizen to gain citizenship for his or her “permanent partner.”

Schumer is also a leading member of the “Gang of Eight,” a group of Democratic and Republican senators who drafted the overall comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744), which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Politico.com reported Monday that a May 10 “off the record” meeting between Schumer and a group of LGBT activists and elected officials grew “heated” over the issue. Politico reported that some “key Democrats have quietly pushed” President Obama to ask Leahy to delay the gay amendments but did not identify Schumer specifically.

But Ralls said Schumer and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) “assured our families” that gay-related protections would be in the immigration reform bill from the beginning.

“When the base bill was not inclusive,” said Ralls, talking about the Gang of Eight’s original draft proposal, “they assured us we would receive a vote in Committee.”

But the committee did not vote on either the UAFA amendment or the second amendment, which would treat as a “spouse” a person who has entered a marriage with a citizen that is “valid in the State in which the marriage was entered into.”

At a hearing last month on the proposed draft bill, former Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe urged members of the Judiciary Committee to “fix” the bill by adding language to help LGBT citizens with foreign partners or spouses. But neither Schumer, Durbin, nor Senator Dianne Feinstein, who also helped the Gang of Eight on the draft bill, said anything in support of adding gay-related language during that hearing. Meanwhile, several Republicans on the committee and in the Gang of Eight have been very vocal about their opposition to the gay-related language. As recently as May 13, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) issued a Twitter post saying, “If the Judiciary Committee tries to redefine marriage in the immigration bill they will lose me and many others.” Gang of Eight member Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told politico.com last month that adding language to allow same-sex permanent partners to immigrate would “virtually guarantee” that the overall bill won’t pass and undo the cooperative spirit of the “Gang of Eight” senators who put the bill together. And Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said last month at a forum, “if you’re going to load it up with social issues, that is the best way to derail it in my view.”

Leahy submits language to help bi-national same-sex couples

As expected, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy introduced amendments Tuesday (May 7) to enable gay citizens to sponsor their “permanent” same-sex partners for immigration, under the proposed comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Patrick Leahy

As expected, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy introduced amendments Tuesday (May 7) to enable gay citizens to sponsor their “permanent” same-sex partners for immigration, under the proposed comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin considering amendments to the immigration bill (S. 744) starting Thursday (May 9) and the committee’s work on the bill is expected to spread out over several days throughout the month.

A total of 53 amendments were submitted by the May 7 deadline, including 29 from the committee’s Democrats and 24 from Republican member Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) did not introduce amendments.

Only Leahy’s amendments address same-sex couples. One seeks to insert the language of the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) into the bill to allow a U.S. citizen to gain citizenship for his or her “permanent partner.” The second amendment would treat as a “spouse” a person who has entered a marriage with a citizen that is “valid in the State in which the marriage was entered into.”

The latter amendment, said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for Immigration Equality, seeks to “recognize married LGBT couples for immigration purposes.”

“This second amendment – which is specifically in line with what Senator Feinstein has said she will support in Committee – provides the same benefits LGBT bi-national couples would receive if the Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act,” said Ralls.  “It is important to note that this second amendment, when passed, would permit couples in non-marriage states to travel to a marriage equality state and still receive a green card. It would also allow couples in exile to marry abroad and have their marriage recognized for U.S. immigration purposes.”

“The demise of DOMA would lead to gay and lesbian couples having the same access to immigration benefits” as male-female married couples, said Lavi Soloway, head of The DOMA Project, which is working to help same-sex bi-national couples.

Immigration Equality supports both amendments.

Ralls said his group expects Republican opposition to the same-sex couple language will “get louder” during the committee mark-up on the amendments.

“But we are confident that Senator Leahy will secure the 10 votes our families need, and that immigration reform will be inclusive when it arrives in the full senate,” said Ralls.

If the Leahy language goes into the bill in Committee, where Democrats have a majority, any effort to strip out that language on the Senate floor would likely require 60 votes to gain cloture before proceeding to the vote to strip the language. But even if the UAFA language passes the Senate, the Republican-led House version of immigration reform will almost certainly not include it. That will put it in the hands of a Senate-House conference committee, where trade-offs and compromises often take place in order to hammer out one version of the legislation to take back to both chambers.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told politico.com last month that adding language to allow same-sex partners to immigrate would “virtually guarantee” the overall bill won’t pass and predicted it would undo the cooperative spirit of the “Gang of Eight” senators who put the reform bill together.

Congress is expected to vote on the overall bill in June.

Delaware votes for marriage equality; becomes 11th state to make it the law

Just minutes before the Delaware Senate was set to vote on its marriage equality bill, a Democrat senator who had been quiet about how she would vote announced on her Facebook page that she would vote yes.

Jack Markell

Just minutes before the Delaware Senate was set to vote on its marriage equality bill, a Democrat senator who had been quiet about how she would vote announced on her Facebook page that she would vote yes. The announcement by Senator Bethany Hall-Long, who represents Dover, the state capital, came just minutes after the city’s other Democratic senator, Karen Peterson, came out as gay on the floor during debate.

The final roll call vote, after three hours of debate, was 12 to 9, with the gallery erupting into loud and prolonged applause. The twelve supporters included one Republican; the nine opponents included two Democrats.

Just minutes later, Democratic Governor Jack Markell signed the bill, making Delaware the eleventh state plus the District of Columbia to provide for equal protection under its marriage laws. Meanwhile, a Minnesota House Ways and Means Committee gave the marriage equality bill there a green light Monday, and the House floor is scheduled to vote on the measure Thursday (May 9). Democratic Governor Mark Dayton is lobbying actively for the measure.

And Illinois is also poised to take a final vote on its marriage equality bill this week. The state senate passed the bill in February; the House bill needs 60 votes to pass.

Tuesday’s debate in Delaware sounded at times as if marriage for same-sex couples was a completely novel idea with numerous unforeseen “consequences.” One senator asked if the marriage equality law would still allow businesses to discriminate against gay couples. (The state of Delaware already has a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.) Another said gays were attempting to secure marriage in an effort to feel normal, made a reference to the “Queen James Bible,” and lamented that it would lead to a bill to address the concerns of “transgenders.” One speaker suggested the bill was taking control of children from parents and giving it to the government. Another said it would lead to polygamy.

Senator Robert Marshall, one of four Democrats whose vote was not known before Tuesday, noted that it took hundreds of years to assure that blacks and women had equal rights.

“No one in this chamber would support laws that prohibited a black person from marrying a white person, yet many states did so,” said Marshall. “Is the right to choose a life partner any different.” He said he supported civil unions two years ago, but that he considered it an incremental step toward allowing marriage.

“I have concluded that it is the fundamental civil right to choose our life partner,” said Marshall, adding that he would vote for the bill. That signaled the bill needed just one more vote to pass.

Next up, was another Democrat whose vote was not known prior to Tuesday, Senator Robert Venables. Venables said he, too, thought civil unions was a step toward eventual recognition of marriage but unlike Marshall, he voted against civil unions two years ago.

“What really they want is to feel comfortable in their lifestyle and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” said Venables, but he said allowing same-sex marriage jeopardizes the sanctity of marriage.

Noting that President Obama had indicated his support for marriage for same-sex couples, but that, “I’ve not so far evolved. I wonder what’s wrong with me?” asked Venables. “I don’t wish anybody ill will but I don’t see why civil unions couldn’t be enough.”

In Delaware, legislators are allowed to invite guests to the floor to make certain points. Opponents of the bill invited a spokesman from an anti-gay group, the Alliance Defense Fund, to say the bill was a tool of LGBT activists to label people who support “traditional” marriage as bigots, force adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples, and deny parents the right to opt their children out of curricula that recognizes same-sex marriage.

Teachers, said ADF’s Jordan Lorence, would be “forced” to teach things they don’t believe in.

Senator Harris McDowell expressed dismay at Lorence’s getting far afield of the measure on the floor. Nevertheless, an opponent’s witness later during the discussion claimed to have a recording of a Russian journalist speaking to a group of cheering gay activists and saying the purpose of marriage equality was the “dissolution of the institution of marriage.”

Bill supporter Senator David Sokola invited Mark Purpura to the floor to explain the purpose of the bill. Purpura said the bill was would allow the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and convert current civil unions into marriage licenses. The bill, he explained, repealed a ban on same-sex marriage passed in 1996 but would not require any clergy or religious official to solemnize a marriage for a same-sex couple.

Sokola also called to the floor the head of Equality Delaware’s leader Lisa Goodman, who attempted to explain why she told the legislature two years ago that a civil unions bill was not a step along the way to a marriage equality bill.

“We would be here today, regardless of whether civil unions had happened,” said Goodman. She said the “rapid shift” of public opinion has inspired marriage equality supporters to come back and seek equal rights in marriage.

Senator Karen Peterson, a Democrat representing the capital city of Dover and who reportedly had not come out as gay publicly before the debate, talked about exchanging vows with her female partner and added, “if my happiness somehow demeans or diminishes your marriage, then you need to work on your marriage.”

Senator Bryan Townsend, a Democrat, noted that Delaware was once one of 16 states that prohibited interracial marriage, including his own.

The Delaware bill passed the House on April 23 by a vote of 23 to 18. And Equality Delaware organized its supporters to attend Tuesday’s vote and to wear red for visibility.

The Delaware bill calls for the bill to go into effect on July 1, a month before a bill signed by the Rhode Island governor last week goes into effect.

Rhode Island marriage law signed; Two more states could vote next week

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a marriage equality bill into law this evening, just an hour after the state House gave the measure its final procedural approval. Two more states could approve marriage for same-sex couples next week.

Gordon Fox

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a marriage equality bill into law this evening (May 2), just an hour after the state House gave the measure its final procedural approval. Two more states could approve marriage for same-sex couples next week.

In Rhode Island, Chafee’s signature seals the state’s position as the tenth state to provide same-sex couples with the same right to marriage licenses as male-female couples. Rhode Island is also the fourth state to do so in the past six months.

Next up is a similar bill in Delaware, due to get its final vote Tuesday (May 7). The bill passed the Senate’s Executive Committee May 1 and is expected to get its final vote Tuesday on the Senate floor, where Democrats have a two-to-one majority. The bill has already cleared the House, on April 23 by a vote of 23 to 18. And Democratic Governor Jack Markell says he supports the measure and hopes it will pass this year.

And Illinois is also poised to take a final vote on its marriage equality bill, perhaps as soon as next Tuesday. The state House is expected to take up a marriage equality bill that passed in the Senate, as soon as supporters feel confident they have the 60 votes needed to pass.

If Delaware and Illinois both pass their bills, then marriage equality state count will stand at 12 plus the District of Columbia with half of that number having approved the measures in just the past six months.

In Rhode Island, the House originally passed a marriage equality bill in January on a vote of 51 to 19. But when the Senate passed its version of the bill, it made some changes that required the measure to go back to the House for final legislative approval.

To sustained applause from the House, Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady congratulated House Speaker Gordon Fox for his leadership in getting the bill moved through the legislature. Fox, who is openly gay, took considerable heat two years ago when he killed a marriage equality bill and moved a civil unions bill instead.

Thursday’s “debate” was marked by numerous emotional statements of support for marriage equality and for equality in general.

While passage of the bill will mean no change to straight couples, said Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, “Tomorrow, gay and lesbian couples in Rhode Island are going to wake up to a different world.”

Rep. Peter Martin, a Democrat from Newport, announced that his daughter was texting him to support the bill while watching the vote from San Francisco on a live web stream.

Rep. Karen MacBeth remembered being a kid when Aaron Frick, a high school student in Providence in 1980 who had to sue for the right to take a male peer to the prom, creating such a stir in the heavily Catholic state that the publicity went national.

Even representatives who voted against the bill expressed gratitude for how Speaker Fox’s led the debate and expressed support for gays and lesbians having equal rights.

Rep. Frank Ferri, who introduced “my husband Tony,” choked back emotion as he noted that the bill goes into effect on his and Tony’s 32nd anniversary, August 1. They married in Canada but will now marry in Rhode Island.

The final vote was 56 to 15 and was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation and numerous loud cheers from the floor and a packed gallery, which then broke into a spontaneous chorus of “My Country Tis of Thee.”

Independent Governor Chafee, a long-time supporter of equal rights for LGBT people, scheduled a ceremony for 5:45 EDT on the South Steps of the State House to sign the bill into law in a public ceremony. The ceremony opened with a song from the Providence Gay Men’s Chorus in front of a large crowd.

The governor’s chief of staff, Stephen Hourahan, an openly gay man, welcomed the crowd and thanked the governor and state leaders for making the vote possible. He noted that Chafee was one of only two U.S. senators who, in 2004, supported allowing gay couples to marry.

“We are living up to the ideals of our founders,” said Chafee. He thanked the many openly gay and straight legislators who “worked for decades” to bring marriage equality to Rhode Island, including Speaker Fox, State Senator Donna Nesselbush, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, and Ray Sullivan, head of Rhode Islanders United for Marriage.

“I know that you have been waiting for this day to come. I know that you have loved ones who dreamed of this” but who have passed on, such as Julie Pell, the late daughter of former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, said Chafee. “At long last, you are free to marry the person you love.”

Fox thanked Chafee as a “true friend and ally” in the struggle to obtain marriage equality in Rhode Island. He thanked Rep. Art Handy, a straight representative, for introducing the bill 11 years ago. And he thanked colleagues in the House, many of whom were originally opposed to the measure, as well as Senate President Teresa Weed, who allowed the vote in the Senate despite her personal opposition.

Fox also defended his own controversial decision two years ago to substitute a civil unions bill for a marriage equality one. He said he was always determined to make the bill happen and that the unhappiness of many with that move two years ago helped build the passion and advocacy to succeed on marriage equality this year.

Second-term Senator Donna Nesselbush, who is also openly gay and sponsored the bill in the Senate, said, “We would not be here today if you were not our proud, openly gay speaker of the House.”

“We changed hearts and minds on this issue one at a time,” said Nesselbush.

Meanwhile, a civil unions law — often a precursor to marriage equality bills — went into effect May 1 in Colorado.

Other states on the verge of considering marriage equality bills this year include:

  • Minnesota – a House committee passed a bill in March filed by long-time openly lesbian state Rep. Karen Clark, just one day after a Senate committee did the same. Minnesotans United press spokesman Jake Loesch said a floor vote in either house could come as early as next week and must clear before May 20. Democratic Governor Mark Dayton is lobbying actively for the measure.
  • New Jersey – supporters of marriage equality are trying to override Republican Governor Chris Christie’s veto last year of a marriage equality bill. Garden State Equality says it is close to securing the 27 votes in the Senate and 54 votes in the Assembly to do so. It has until the end of the session, January 2014, to do so. Garden State Equality spokesman TJ Helmstetter said he thinks the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June could help the effort.

President praises pro athlete Jason Collins for courage to come out

President Obama expressed his support for the decision by professional basketball player Jason Collins to come out this week in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

President Barack Obama

President Obama expressed his support for the decision by professional basketball player Jason Collins to come out this week in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

Obama made his comments at the end of an hour-long press conference today (Tuesday, April 30). After he had already started to exit, a reporter shouted out a question about Collins and President Obama stopped and returned to the podium.

“I had a chance to talk to him yesterday. He seems like a terrific young man, and I told him I couldn’t be prouder,” said the president.

“One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality, not just partial equality, not just tolerance but a recognition that they’re fully a part of the American family. And given importance of sports in our society, for an individual who has excelled at the highest levels in one of the major sports to go ahead and say, ‘This is who I am. I’m proud of it, I’m still a great competitor. I’m still seven-feet tall and can bang with Shaq [O’Neal] and deliver a hard foul’–and I think for a lot of young people out there who are gay or lesbian who are struggling with these issues to see a role model like that who is unafraid it’s a great thing. America should be proud that this is just one more step in this ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly and everybody is part of a family and we judge people on the basis of their character and their performance, and not their sexual orientation. So I’m very proud of him.”

Collins, 34, plays center for the Washington Wizards basketball team, and, came out in the May 6 issue of the magazine which was posted online April 29.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” said Collins. “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

The revelation made Collins the first male professional athlete in a major sport to acknowledge being gay while still actively playing his sport and it prompted a flood of conversations in the media and online social networks.

In a follow-up article with Sports Illustrated, Collins said he was stunned when he got a call from President Obama. He said the president told him, “What you did today was brave” and that “it didn’t just affect me, it affected so many other people in the country.”

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova became one of the first professional athletes to come out. She did so in July 1981 after being sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

“I didn’t get a phone call from Ronald Reagan,” quipped Navratilova, in an appearance on CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. She said that “Madison Avenue totally shunned me” and that tennis audiences “were sitting on their hands.”

“They weren’t clapping when I came on the court or they were booing or jeering,” she recalled. “The press was roasting me. It was not a pretty sight. I’d say it was about 95 percent against and maybe I’d get five percent of support. Now, for Jason, it’s much different….It’s fantastic.”

Navratilova said that, unlike with athletes who are part of a team sport, her livelihood was never threatened.

“But now, for Jason,” said Navratilova, “maybe the case is different, and he may actually get more money because of it.”

First Lady Michelle Obama also showed support for Collins, posting a Twitter message saying, “So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We’ve got your back!”

Rhode Island marriage bill clears final hurdle with all Republicans

After a moving speech by a senator who described herself as a lifelong, devout Catholic and said she would support marriage equality, the Rhode Island Senate Wednesday afternoon voted to approve a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry in the state.

Donna Nesselbush

After a moving speech by a senator who described herself as a devout Catholic and said she would support marriage equality, the Rhode Island Senate Wednesday afternoon (April 24) voted 26 to 12 to approve a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry in the state. The Senate bill must now  go to the House, which passed a different version of a marriage equality bill in January on a strong 51 to 19 vote. The bill is expected to clear that hurdle easily next week and the governor has already indicated he will sign it. When that happens, Rhode Island will become the tenth state in the nation, plus the District of Columbia, to begin treating same-sex couples the same as male-female couples in marriage licensing and recognition.

The Rhode Island Senate vote followed by one day a vote in the Delaware House to pass a marriage equality bill, 23 to 18. And it followed exactly one week after the New Zealand legislature passed marriage equality legislation on April 17.

Uruguay’s legislature passed a marriage equality law April 10. And the French National Assembly, following the lead of its Senate, approved similar legislation April 23, meaning the measure there needs to clear only one pre-enactment judicial review before French President François Hollande can sign it into law.

In Rhode Island, openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox told the Providence Journal he believes the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by openly lesbian Senator Donna Nusselbush, would pass the House and be on the governor’s desk next week.

Before passing the marriage law, the Senate also rejected an attempt to put the issue before voters, by a 28 to 10 vote.

In contrast to the votes in many state legislative bodies, the vote in Rhode Island had most Republicans in support of the measure. Republican Senator Dawson Hodgson said the Republican caucus was “unanimous” in its support of the bill. In fact, all five of the Senate’s Republicans voted for the bill; and a third of the Democrats voted no, including Senate President Teresa Weed. Weed won considerable praise from supporters of the bill, however, for allowing the measure to proceed to the floor for consideration.

Of the Senate’s 31 Democrats, 21 voted for the bill, 10 against. One of the no votes was from Senator Howard Metts (D-Providence) who read numerous Biblical passages, promising that approval of marriage bill would result in “sin and death.”

The one independent senator voted no.

 

Meanwhile, the Illinois House is expected any day now to take up a marriage equality bill passed in the Senate.

In Nevada this week, state senators were reportedly surprised when one of their own –state Senator Kelvin Atkinson (D-North Las Vegas)—came out to them on the floor of the Senate as the chamber was debating a bill to repeal the state’s current ban on marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

The 21-member Nevada senate voted 12 to 9 Monday night (April 22) to approve a measure to amend the state constitution to remove language that currently bans recognition of marriages for same-sex couples. Because it is a state constitutional amendment, the measure must still pass the Assembly and then pass both the Senate and Assembly in 2015 and be approved by voters in 2016.

According to the Las Vegas Sun, the vote came after about an hour of debate during which time Atkinson spoke of his father’s interracial marriage and then told colleagues, “I’m black. I’m gay.”

The Sun said the senate rejected an effort to add language that would have not only removed the ban but required recognition of same-sex unions.

The legislative actions in the U.S. followed news of a critical vote in France, approving marriage equality this week, and a final approval for marriage equality by the New Zealand legislature April 17.

The New Zealand law does not require that same-sex couples reside in the country before obtaining a marriage license and, thus, is expected to attract many same-sex couples from Australia. Uruguay’s legislature passed a marriage equality law April 10.

The approval of marriage equality in France elicited loud and raucous protests from opponents of allowing same-sex couples to marry. Some news reports, including the New York Times, estimated protesters as numbering “hundreds of thousands.” But despite those protests, 53 percent of the French Senate passed the marriage equality legislation April 12, and its National Assembly did so on April 23 with the support of almost 60 percent of the Assembly’s members.

The number of countries providing marriage equality for same-sex couples now stands at 13, with eight of those moving to marriage equality in the last five years. The 13 are: the Netherlands (in 2001), Belgium (2003), Spain and Canada (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway and Sweden (2009), Argentina, Iceland, and Portugal (2010), Denmark (2012), and New Zealand  and Uruguay (2013).

In addition to France, Australia may soon be taking up marriage equality, thanks in large part to its passage in neighboring New Zealand. The law in New Zealand does not require that same-sex couples reside in the country before obtaining a marriage license and, thus, many expect that a large number of same-sex couples from Australia with make the three-hour flight to secure legal recognition of their relationships. The national group Australian Marriage Equality says it plans to make same-sex marriage “a central issue” in the country’s elections this year. Prime Minister Julia Gillard told an ABC radio interviewer April 24 that she is opposed to same-sex marriage but is “not seeking to impose my views on anybody.”

Illinois, Rhode Island poised for marriage votes this month

The race to become the tenth state to provide for marriage equality just got more interesting, as both Illinois and Rhode Island legislatures are on track to take final votes this month.

Teresa Paiva Weed

The race to become the tenth state to provide for marriage equality just got more interesting, as both Illinois and Rhode Island legislatures are on track to take final votes this month.

In a surprise development, Rhode Island Senate President Teresa Weed acknowledged to a Providence Journal reporter Sunday that she would allow a floor vote on the marriage equality bill by the end of the month. Weed, who is opposed to the bill, had previously promised only to allow a Senate committee vote if the bill passed the House. The marriage equality bill passed the Rhode Island House in January on a 51 to 19 vote.

Weed press spokesman Greg Pare confirmed Tuesday that Weed plans to bring the bill to a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee soon after the legislature returns from its spring break next week. He said Weed also committed to allow a floor vote a “couple of days after that,” before the end of this month.

Meanwhile, the Illinois House is also looking at the real possibility of taking its historic vote on marriage equality this month. The Senate passed the legislation in February on a 34 to 21 vote.

As of Tuesday (April 9), Equality Illinois leader Bernard Cherkasov said he didn’t have a timeline for when the House vote might happen, but added, “I do feel confident that the marriage bill will pass with strong, bipartisan support.”

The Illinois House has 118 members, 71 Democrat and 47 Republican. The bill needs 60 votes to pass. Associated Press said Democratic Governor Pat Quinn told reporters Monday (April 8) that supporters of the legislation are “very close” to getting the votes they need.

Both Quinn and Rhode Island’s independent Governor Lincoln Chafee have said they will sign the marriage equality legislation. While either state would represent another success for LGBT civil rights supporters, passage in Illinois would put the nation’s fifth most populous state in the victory column. That would make Illinois the second most populous of the marriage equality states, behind New York. It would also mean that 15 percent of the U.S. population would be living in states where same-sex couples are allowed to marry. If Rhode Island and California come onboard this year –as they could (California through a U.S. Supreme Court decision) —that figure would jump to nearly one-third of the population.

The Illinois legislature has been in recess for the past several weeks and reconvened Monday (April 8), but both supporters and opponents of marriage equality have been busy during recess.

Several local websites have reported escalating use of robo-calls by opponents of allowing gays to marry. One Chicago neighborhood website, dnainfo.com/Chicago, said constituents of at least one House legislator were receiving robo-calls saying that same-sex marriage “denies children the right to know who their real parent it.” The website said the recording was produced by Family-PAC. An earlier robo-call message said “homosexual activists” were demanding marriage regardless of its consequences, adding, “Children are not playthings or social experiments.” It was recorded by a local conservative talk show host, Sandy Rios.

But there have been high-profile supporters, too. National civil rights leader Julian Bond issued a statement in support of Illinois marriage equality last week. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp, Hyatt Hotels Corporation President Mark Hoplamazian, Latino Policy Forum Executive Director Maria Pesqueira, and the two local daily newspapers are also supporting marriage equality.

And Windy City Times reported that four well-known local sports stars sent a letter to House members urging their support for marriage equality. They included Chicago Cubs’ Baseball Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks and three former players with the Chicago Bears football team. One of them, Brendon Ayanbandelo, now plays for the Super Bowl Championship team the Baltimore Ravens. He spoke out in support of marriage equality in Maryland, too.

Even the head of the Illinois Republican Party, Pat Brady, announced support for the bill. That move, in January, put him at odds with many in his party –so much so, the state party held a caucus March 8 to consider ousting him from his position as chairman of the state party. But The Chicago Tribune reported that the meeting was later cancelled when opponents failed to identify enough votes (60 percent of the membership) to replace Brady. The Tribune said the National Organization for Marriage organized a form-letter campaign directed at party members against Brady. The Chicago Sun Times reported that U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) were among the Republican leaders in the state who lobbied for Brady’s retention.

Brady’s support has been joined recently by two Republican members of the House –one Republican leader, Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein, and Rep. Ron Sandack of a Chicago suburb.

Mundelein told Associated Press that his mother-in-law is gay and that has given him a “more familiar and fair understanding of people who are in same-sex relationships.”

Meanwhile, the Santa Fe Mayor David Coss submitted a resolution to the City Council March 27, seeking declaration that same-sex couples have a right to obtain marriage licenses in New Mexico. The Council is expected to vote April 24. Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown announced April 5 that petitioners have until July 3, 2014 to gather the more 116,000 signatures needed.

House passes inclusive bill for victims of domestic abuse

In a major victory for Democrats, the U.S. House voted Thursday to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Gwen Moore

In a major victory for Democrats, the U.S. House voted Thursday (February 28) to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with a bill that includes language to ensure that victims of domestic violence can receive assistance from federally funded programs regardless of their sexual orientation. The vote was 286 to 138.

The legislation originally passed the Senate February 12 on a 78 to 22 vote, but House Republicans initially introduced their own version of the bill–one that excluded the language to include gay victims and to provide greater protections for Native American and immigrant women. White House and Democratic leaders in the House expressed their disappointment about the exclusion of LGBT provisions and others.

“The Administration is disappointed that the House bill does not … explicitly protect LGBT victims of crime from discrimination when they seek services or protections funded by VAWA,” said a White House statement February 26.

Following Thursday’s vote, President Obama issued a statement saying he was “pleased to see the House of Representatives come together and vote to reauthorize and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act.”

“Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community.”

An unidentified aide to an unidentified House Republican leader told a Washington Post blog early in the week that a House version of the bill, which excluded language protecting LGBT people, did not discriminate against LGBT people. The aide criticized the Senate version of the bill for “enumerating actual categories of people that are covered” in a way that “requires constant updating.”

“We’re giving the states the resources they need, and we’re also making sure no one is discriminated against,” said the aide. He did not explain how the House version ensures no one is discriminated against.

On the floor of the House Thursday, many Republicans echoed the point, saying there was no language in the bill to exclude anyone.

“I would just ask my colleagues on other side of the aisle to please point to anywhere in the House bill that coverage for anyone is denied,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “The House bill covers all victims. It does not exclude anyone for any characteristic. In fact,” she said, “it directs the Attorney General to make a rule regarding anti-discrimination efforts as he sees fit.” And she said the grants associated with the VAWA are “authorized to permit funding to go toward men as well as women.”

To some extent, debate over the inclusion or exclusion of LGBT victims of domestic abuse was conducted through discussion of protecting “all women” or “all victims,” rather than LGBT people –including gay men—specifically.

Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Republicans’ majority leader, repeatedly emphasized on the floor Thursday his desire to help “all women” through reauthorization of the VAWA program, but he limited his support to the House Republican version of the bill which does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Twice, Cantor seemed to correct himself –changing “all individuals” and “all people” to “all women.”

Openly gay Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.Is.), while mentioning members of the LGBT community, also emphasized the importance of protecting “all women.” House Democratic Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) emphasized the importance of passing the “fully inclusive” version of the bill protecting “all” victims, as did numerous other Democrats.

But some Democrats were more direct.

“I don’t believe that my Republican colleagues, if they saw a lesbian woman being beaten by their neighbor, that they would not want to have that violence stopped,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-New York).

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) noted that all members of the House seemed to be against violence against women, “but the question is which women.”

“The Senate bill protects LGBT victims but the House bill strikes LGBT women as underserved communities and strikes the language that would have them as a protected group,” said Moore.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) spoke forcefully in support of protecting LGBT people, asking, “Do they not feel the same pain?”

Many Republicans, including Rep. Charles Dent (R-Pa.), did speak in favor of the inclusive Senate bill, as did the national Log Cabin Republicans group.

“Today, many Republicans are taking a stand for a more modern and inclusive GOP. Our leaders in Congress should be weary of leaving the LGBT community out of legislation that is intended to protect all Americans from domestic violence,” said Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans.

“Including LGBT provisions merely codifies equal protection and clarifies an area in which there was confusion regarding the application of prior versions of VAWA to LGBT individuals,” said Angelo. “The Republican Party must continue to be the party of equal rights for all Americans.”

Prior to passage of the Senate version of the bill, the House defeated the Republican version of the bill on a 166 to 257 vote.

“It’s tremendous that both Republican and Democratic leaders came together to ensure that all domestic violence victims, including those who are LGBT, will not face discrimination when they seek services,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, issued a statement noting that 61 percent of LGBT victims of domestic abuse had been turned away from shelters and 85% of service providers working with LGBT victims had observed discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

“We are grateful,” said Kemnitz, “that the Violence Against Women Act will now be a powerful tool to protect our community and ensure justice is served.”

Mixed reviews from LGBT community on fourth State of the Union address

President Obama continued his trend of including references to LGBT people in his State of the Union address Tuesday night (February 12), but he got mixed reviews from the community itself.

President Barack Obama

President Obama continued his trend of including references to LGBT people in his State of the Union address Tuesday night (February 12), but he got mixed reviews from the community itself.

Early in the one-hour speech, he told Congress and the national television audience, “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

Later, in talking about the military, he said, “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight.”

Neither the “Republican response” to the address, delivered by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), nor the response offered by Tea Party Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) addressed any gay specific issue.

Family Equality Council Executive Director Jennifer Chrisler singled out the president’s general comment for fairness, saying ,”Tonight the President made clear that every American deserves to have a shot at the American dream regardless of where they live, what they look like or who they love.”

Allyson Robinson, head of the OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, applauded the military-specific statement, saying “President Obama was very clear tonight in his assertion that lesbian and gay service members and their families must be treated equally by the nation they serve.”

But Rea Carey, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, sounded a disappointed tone.

“We have often said that President Obama is the most pro-LGBT president in history. His first term was filled with monumental gains for LGBT people and our families, including the passage of a federal hate crimes law, repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and his declaration of support for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples,” said Carey. “But the state of the union for many LGBT people remains one of economic inequality and insecurity. We urge President Obama to use his leadership to help get us over the finish line during his second term.”

Carey said the president should issue an executive order banning companies that contract with the federal government from discriminating in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And she said President Obama should “pressure” Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, a statewide LGBT group in Illinois, expressed disappointment that President Obama did not use “some of his political capital to push for passage of ENDA, immigration reforms that help same-sex couples, and marriage equality in states, such as Illinois.

And Heather Cronk, managing director of the national activist group GetEqual, said the president’s remarks amount to “lip service.”

“Time and time again, President Obama continues to pay lip service to employment equity,” said Cronk, “but refuses to take the simple step of signing an Executive Order that would end LGBT discrimination by federal contractors — and that would prevent taxpayer dollars, including taxpayer dollars from LGBT Americans, from going to discriminatory companies.”

In his first official State of the Union address, in 2010, President Obama called for repeal of the federal law barring openly gay people from serving in the military. In 2011, just a month after signing into law the bill that repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the president used his State of the Union address to urge universities that had been barring military recruiters over the gay ban to start allowing recruiters back on campus. Last year, he made one direct reference to something gay, saying that, when our servicemembers put on their uniforms, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian or Latino; conservative or liberal; rich or poor; gay or straight.”

As in past years, the White House again this year included an openly gay person among their two dozen special guests, sitting with First Lady Michelle Obama in the House gallery. This year, they chose Tracey Hepner of Arlington, Virginia, and a co-founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition (MPFC). The Coalition provides support and advocacy for LGBT military partners and their families. She also full time for the Department of Homeland Security as a Master Behavior Detection Officer.  She is married to the first openly gay or lesbian general officer in the military, Army Brigadier General Tammy Smith.

The Human Rights Campaign noted that U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) invited a same-sex couple, Kelly Costello and Fabiola Morales, to be his guests at the event.

The White House released a “President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America,” in conjunction with the address Tuesday night. The plan made no mention of LGBT people specifically, but included one section called “Encouraging and strengthening families” in which the president proposes “to remove financial deterrents to marriage for low income couples, and to support and encourage fatherhood including working with the faith community and the private sector.” The plan also called for passage of the bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act but made no specific mention of the new provisions that would make the program available to victims of domestic abuse regardless of their sexual orientation.

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, issued a brief statement applauding the speech. She did not highlight either of President Obama’s gay-related remarks.

Second inaugural boosts LGBT equality

President Obama, in his second inaugural address, emphasized the nation’s principle of equality for all and, in doing so, specifically included the struggles of LGBT Americans to achieve equality.

President Obama, in his second inaugural address, emphasized the nation’s principle of equality for all and, in doing so, specifically included the struggles of LGBT Americans to achieve equality.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what [our nation’s] pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” said Obama.

Our generation’s task, he said, is to “make these words, these rights, these values – of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.”

LGBT groups issued statements praising President Obama for including the gay civil rights struggle in his remarks, and many political commentators with mainstream news organizations were quick to note that this was the first inaugural address to specifically name gays and that it seemed to represent a boost to progressive goals for the administration’s second term.

“By lifting up the lives of LGBT families for the very first time in an inaugural address, President Obama sent a clear message to LGBT young people from the Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains that this country’s leaders will fight for them until equality is the law of the land,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.

Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry group, said President Obama, by including the gay civil rights movement alongside the movements for the civil rights of blacks and women, “rightly exalted the struggle for the freedom to marry as part of America’s moral commitment to equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In his first inaugural address, in 2009, President Obama emphasized unity and did not refer to LGBT citizens directly or indirectly. Some last-minute inclusion of gay people in various venues of the inaugural festivities went generally unpublicized and unseen. Instead, media attention remarked on the high-profile inclusion of a California evangelist Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural benediction. Just two months earlier, Warren supported Proposition 8 in California, banning marriage for same-sex couples.

This time, however, there was positive and visible inclusion of LGBT people throughout the inaugural ceremony.

Delivering the benediction on the inaugural podium Monday, the Rev. Luis Leon, the pastor of an Episcopal church near the White House that the Obama family attends, urged that “prejudice and rancor” not be allowed to rule our hearts but that, instead, all citizens hold each other in “mutual regard” no matter what their race or gender or immigrant status, and whether “gay or straight, rich or poor.”

Press reports prior to the inaugural ceremony characterized Leon as a “gay-affirming” clergyman at Saint John’s Church, which also celebrates marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Leon replaced Atlanta pastor Louie Giglio who was initially invited to deliver the benediction but who withdrew from the ceremony after criticism surfaced about remarks he made in a sermon in the 1990s. In that sermon, Giglio called homosexualiy “probably the greatest addiction” and said that marriage between same-sex partners is “absolutely undermining the whole order of our society.”

An openly gay man, Richard Blanco of Bethel, Maine, presented a poem as part of the inaugural ceremony. Drawing from common images of Americans in all walks of life, Blanco’s poem spoke of the nation’s oneness.

“One sun rose on us today,” he noted. “…one light waking up rooftops, under each one a story….my face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” He spoke of sights common to all, of the rows of colorful fruits and vegetables at markets, as “rainbows begging our praise.” And he spoke of “carrying our lives without prejudice” and “giving thanks for a love that loves you back.”

Myrlie Evers-Williams, who delivered the invocation at the inaugural ceremony, did not mention LGBT people specifically, but repeatedly referred to the importance of diversity in the nation’s people and in the principle “everyone is included.” In an interview with Urban Christian News a few days before the event, she was asked how she felt about the Giglio controversy: “I’m simply delighted that I was not so controversial that I would step down,” said Evers-Williams, “or be asked to step down.”

And an elder of the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church, Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson, was the first to greet the congregation of national leaders at the National Prayer Service Tuesday morning. Wilson, who serves on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is a moderator of the Universal Fellowship of MCCs, following in the steps of MCC founder Troy Perry. She has been active in the movement to achieve equality for same-sex couples in marriage, as well on issues involving HIV, the treatment of prisoners, and women’s equality.

The sermon for the nationally broadcast prayer service was delivered by Rev. Adam Hamilton, a senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Hamilton co-authored a motion last year to urge the United Methodist denomination to amend its policy statement that homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The motion failed.

If there was any mar to the historic inauguration ceremony, it was likely from a different pastor from Kansas. According to a pool reporter for White House, a small number of people held up signs saying, “God hates fags” and “God hates Obama” along the motorcade route to the U.S. Capitol on Monday. The messages were typical of Kansas pastor Fred Phelps and his follower who have acquired considerable media attention by displaying hate-filled messages at gays during various high-profile events.

            During the inaugural parade Monday afternoon, the lavendar-clad Lesbian and Gay Band contingent appeared in the middle of the parade contingents, gaining national visibility on television broadcasts for a few seconds as it passed the presidential viewing booth. The band followed  a float about Martin Luther King Jr., and “Civil Rights Float” and in front of the “Native American Women Warriors” contingent from Colorado. This is the Band’s second appearance ever in an inaugural parade and, because its members are comprised of 37 groups from around the world, its first rehearsal for this year’s event took place Saturday. The Civil Rights Float is described by the Presidential Inaugural Committee as featuring “images representing historic struggles of many of the civil rights movements in our country,” including the LGBT movement.

Monday night, the Human Rights Campaign’s “LGBT Out for Equality Inaugural Ball” was held just a few blocks from the White House –at the Mayflower Hotel.

LGBT groups split on Hagel as Secretary of Defense nominee

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin said that she wants to see whether Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s apology for anti-gay remarks 14 years ago is “sincere and sufficient.” But former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said his opinion of Hagel has gone from opposition to reconsideration.

Chuck Hagel. Photo courtesy Atlantic Council

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin said Monday (January 7) that she wants to see whether Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s apology for anti-gay remarks 14 years ago is “sincere and sufficient.” But former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said his opinion of Hagel has gone from opposition to reconsideration.

Baldwin made her remarks just minutes after President Obama officially nominated the former Republican Senator from Nebraska to the top Pentagon post. During an interview with MSNBC, Baldwin said she did not know Hagel, but that she plans to ask him “some tough questions.”

Baldwin does not sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee but, as a member of the U.S. Senate, will vote on Hagel’s confirmation.

She told MSNBC she plans to give Hagel’s nomination a “thorough review” and will “be fair.”

“But I do want to speak with him particularly about his comments 14 years ago to …see if his apology is sincere and sufficient,” said Baldwin. “I want to see how he’s evolved on this issue in last 14 years” and how he will contribute to the successful implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Frank told the Boston Globe, in an interview published Monday, that while he was hoping President Obama would not nominate Hagel to the position, “With the attack coming out of the right, I hope he gets confirmed.” Frank, who is both gay and Jewish, said last month that he thinks Hagel would be “very good” with respect to Israel and the Defense budget but that his anti-gay comments in the past were a “disqualification from being appointed.”

“Then-Senator Hagel’s aggressively bigoted opposition to President Clinton’s naming the first openly gay Ambassador in US history was not, as [former] senator Hagel now claims, an aberration,” said Frank, in the statement released last week. “He voted consistently against fairness for LGBT people and there does not seem to be any evidence prior to his effort to become secretary of defense of any apology or retraction of his attack on James Hormel. And to those of us who admire and respect Mr. Hormel, Senator Hagel’s description of him as aggressive can only mean that the senator strongly objected to Hormel’s reasoned, civil advocacy for LGBT people.”

A number of conservative senators, including Jon Cornyn (R-Texas) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) are opposing Hagel’s nomination. Coats told Fox News that Hagel “has moved from a conservative Republican coming out of Nebraska to someone that looks like they are out of the most leftist state in the country….” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) predicted “very little Republican support for his nomination.” Neither pegged their opposition to Hagel’s apology for anti-gay remarks, but there was widespread media attention last week when Hagel issued a statement apologizing for his remarks against the nomination of James Hormel to become ambassador to Luxemburg under President Bill Clinton. At the time of those remarks, in 1998, Hagel characterized Hormel’s openness about his sexual orientation as an “aggressive” act that could inhibit his ability to represent the United States in a foreign post.

“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families,” said Hagel in his statement.

The Human Rights Campaign initially criticized the choice of Hagel but backed off after the apology.

HRC President Chad Griffin issued a statement last month when Hagel’s name was floated as a likely nominee, saying Hagel’s past comments on gays and his Congressional voting on gay-related issues “unacceptable.” But after Hagel issued his apology for his 1996 hostile remarks over openly gay ambassadorial nominee James Hormel, HRC softened its opposition.

“Senator Hagel’s apology and his statement of support for LGBT equality is appreciated and shows just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former Senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues,” said Griffin, in a statement issued Monday. “Our community continues to add allies to our ranks and we’re proud that Senator Hagel is one of them.

“The next Defense Secretary should get off to a fast start and ensure LGBT military families have access to every possible benefit under the law,” said Griffin. “Every day these families continue to face unfair treatment and the Secretary can take meaningful action to remedy this discrimination.”

This week, HRC added, “We look forward to Senator Hagel’s testimony on how he intends to ensure equal benefits for gay and lesbian service members and their families.”

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force initially expressed “grave concerns” about Hagel and this week said it continues to have  “concern.”

“Though Chuck Hagel has recently apologized for past anti-gay remarks, we expect him to fully explain his views during the confirmation process and what steps he intends to take as defense secretary to demonstrate his support for LGBT members of the military and their families,” said NGLTF Executive Director Rea Carey. “We recognize that people do evolve on these issues and we hold out hope that, if confirmed, Hagel will meet the bar set by other cabinet secretaries and the administration when it comes to ensuring fairness for all LGBT military families and for women in the military.”

Log Cabin Republicans is bluntly opposed and says he’s “not the right nominee.”

The national LGBT Republican group ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post Monday, saying Hagel’s apology for past anti-gay remarks is “too little, too late.” The ad highlights his previous opposition to repealing the military ban on gay servicemembers and his opposition to allowing equal marriage rights for gay couples.

“Until his name surfaced as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense, he has stood firmly and aggressively against not only gay marriage, but also against gay people in general,” said Gregory Angelo, who took over as interim executive director of Log Cabin less than two weeks ago. “Log Cabin Republicans helped lead the charge to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and is extremely invested in seeing that we don’t lose any ground due to a lack of sincere commitment to gay people and their families on the part of the incoming Defense Secretary.”

In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Angelo said he thinks people should “pause and question” the timing of Hagel’s “so-called apology.”

“I’m not about to hypothesize what was in his head, but the timing of the apology does seem rather suspect—that his evolution [on gay issues] came days after his name floated” as a nominee, said Angelo.

“Log Cabin Republicans spent a lot of time and money on repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—a bipartisan effort,” said Angelo. “Now is not the time to roll the dice on a nominee who may or may not smoothly implement” that repeal. “He’s not the right nominee.”

Zeke Stokes, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), said his organization never opposed Hagel’s nomination and believes the apology was worth consideration.

“Senator Hagel pretty quickly addressed those remarks and apologized for what he said 14 years ago, so we certainly want to give him the same space we would give anyone to evolve over 14 years on this issue,” said Stokes. “He’s indicated he has [evolved] and, just as we would with anyone, we are communicating to him and to the White House things we believe need to happen.”

Specifically, said Stokes, SLDN wants to hear from the nominee whether he will “take a serious look at the inequities” for gay servicemembers serving today “and make an immediate commitment to remedy those inequities that he can [through…] own authority.”

In a press release January 4, SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson said Hagel “clearly has the military credentials and experience” for the Secretary’s job but that it is “incumbent upon him during the nomination and confirmation process to lay out demonstrable actions he will take” to support his words. The press release said SLDN wants the nominee, if confirmed, to add “sexual orientation” to the language of military’s non-discrimination policies and extend “all benefits” possible to married same-sex couples, while DOMA is still in force.

The Human Rights Campaign’s scoring of Hagel’s voting record while the Republican represented Nebraska in the U.S. Senate earned him the lowest grade possible on LGBT-related issues—zero in two of his last three congressional sessions, and a 20 out of 100 in the last session he served. Hagel opposed an effort to ban same-sex marriage nationally through an amendment to the federal constitution.

Neither the president nor Hagel referred to any opposition to the Hagel nomination during a White House press conference Monday afternoon.

Bills in Rhode Island and Illinois put states in race to become Number 10

The race to become the tenth state to provide marriage equality for same-sex couples is underway, with Rhode Island and Illinois running neck-and-neck. Marriage equality bills were launched in both states’ legislatures last week.

Ray Sullivan. Photo credit: MERI

The race to become the tenth state to provide marriage equality for same-sex couples is underway, with Rhode Island and Illinois running neck-and-neck.

Marriage equality bills were launched in both states’ legislatures last week.

In Illinois, a marriage equality bill passed its first vote—in a Senate Executive Committee—8 to 5. But, with a new legislative session set to begin Wednesday, January 9, supporters decided to “go back to square one” rather than try to rush votes in the lame duck legislature.

In Rhode Island, identical bills were introduced in the state house and senate. Noting that Rhode Island is the only New England state without marriage equality, House sponsor Arthur Handy said the legislation is long overdue. Openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox, who took considerable criticism two years ago for setting aside a marriage equality bill to pass a civil unions bill, said this month he will call for a House vote on the marriage bill by the end of January.

“Marriage equality is going to be an important issue,” Fox told reporters last week. “Won’t stand alone, but I do want to do it early, send it over to the senate. I do think we have the votes to pass marriage equality in the House of Representatives, so that’s a priority.”

Ray Sullivan, director of the Marriage Equality for Rhode Island (MERI) campaign, said he expects the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing and vote within the next couple of weeks.

“We are not taking anything for granted, of course,” said Sullivan, but he added the prospects for success look good in the House.

Prospects for the bill in the Senate are a little tougher, where the Senate president, Democrat Teresa Weed, is opposed. But Sullivan said she has promised to allow the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote on the matter if the House passes the bill.

Openly gay Senator Donna Nusselbush sponsors the bill in the Senate, and voters in November elected five new pro-marriage equality legislators to the senate. And the campaign to pass a marriage equality bill is being led by a former Rhode Island Rep. Ray Sullivan, head of the Fight Back Rhode Island Campaign.

This year, the bill starts off with 42 co-sponsors in the 75-member House, virtually assuring passage. It has 11 co-sponsors in the 38-member Senate. Democrats hold 32 of those seats.

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) signed a civil union bill into law in 2011 but said the bill failed to “fully achieve” the goal of providing same-sex couples with equal rights. Fox derailed the marriage equality bill that year, saying it had no realistic chance of passing the Senate. Fox told the local papers that he did not even have the votes to pass the marriage equality bill in 2011 in the House, where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 65 to 10.

In Illinois, where the marriage equality bill got off to a bit of a false start last week, the Senate is 35 Democrats, 24 Republicans. The House is 64 Democrats, 53 Republicans.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said on January 4 that, although the marriage equality bill there had just cleared an historic hurdle –passing the Senate Executive Committee, supporters felt they simply did not have enough time to get the bill through the legislature before the new sessions opened, Wednesday, January 9. Plus, three supportive senators were absent due to family emergencies last week, making the vote more difficult.

“It’s never simple and easy in Illinois,” said Cherkasov. “But it’s just timing. With three key yes votes in the senate suddenly gone for emergency reasons, we didn’t have their votes and time ran out.”

But while supporters must “go back to square one on Wednesday,” said Cherkasov, with the new session comes a “progressive majority which will be broader and stronger.”

“It’s never going to be easy, but having had the debate already in the senate and having a senate leader building coalitions, we do expect a much more civil debate and expect they will vote the right to marry,” said Cherkasov.

Because the Illinois legislature essentially goes into recess soon after it convenes, Cherkasov said he does not expect any votes until after the body reconvenes January 31.

And the chances for passage?

“Really strong,” said Cherkasov. There are progressive majorities in both chambers. Both President Obama and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin have urged the legislature to pass a marriage equality bill. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has pushed the legislature to pass the bill. Even the Illinois Republican Party president is backing the legislation.

LGBT centers fear drastic impact if agreement not reached on ‘fiscal cliff’

Chances are, if you are even remotely plugged into the news, you’ve grown weary of hearing about the “fiscal cliff.” That’s the metaphor du jour for the sudden and dramatic cuts in federal spending and tax breaks set to occur at midnight on December 31.

Lorri Jean

Chances are, if you are even remotely plugged into the news, you’ve grown weary of hearing about the “fiscal cliff.” That’s the metaphor du jour for the sudden and dramatic cuts in federal spending and tax breaks set to occur at midnight on December 31 unless Congress and President Obama can agree upon a budget that makes sufficient progress toward reducing the federal debt.

Nearly every American will be significantly affected if the federal government goes over the “fiscal cliff” without an agreement. Most will pay $2,000 to $3,000 more in federal taxes per year, many will lose lucrative tax deductions, and the Congressional Budget Office predicts the economy will fall back into recession.

There are specific repercussions for the LGBT community.

“I have great concerns about it,” says Lorri Jean, chief executive officer of the nation’s largest LGBT community and health center–the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. “In fact, these days, I’m worried about the one-two punch of capping charitable tax deductions and the fiscal cliff. And, every LGBT person who cares about our community ought to be worried about them, too.”

Jean notes that the largest infrastructure for the LGBT community nationwide is its federation of more than 200 LGBT community and health centers–places like the Los Angeles Center, the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, Lyon-Martin Health Services in San Francisco, and the LGBT Community Center in New York City.

“When an LGBT kid is struggling with coming out, typically his or her first attempt to reach out for help is to an LGBT center,” says Jean. “The list is long of what people turn to centers for–or of what centers provide to LGBT people.” The LGBT centers of most major cities provide a wide range of services to LGBT seniors, to people seeking HIV testing, prevention, and treatment, to those in need of addiction recovery programs, coming out support groups, and more.

These groups, says Jean, are typically non-profit and, while they may take in significant dollars through fees for services and through private donations, many rely on federal funding for about a third of their budgets.

Going over the “fiscal cliff” without an agreement, says Jean, means two things: More people are going to need the services LGBT centers provide and LGBT centers are going to have significantly fewer dollars with which to provide those services.

“Demand for our services has already skyrocketed in this economy, and there will be fewer places to go if sequestration [the automatic cut in spending and tax breaks] goes into effect and results in the demise of nonprofits that simply cannot continue to survive without government dollars,” says Jean. “The private sector does not have the capacity to fill the huge hole that would be left if government funding essentially went away.  The social services safety net in this country is held together by nonprofit organizations that get significant funding from government.  A dramatic reduction in that will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, and LGBT people will be significantly among them.”

Dawn Harbatkin, executive director of the Lyon-Martin Health Services center in San Francisco, can put a number on it.

“Community health centers may face an automatic $167 million reduction in funding should Congress fail to negotiate a budget deal,” says Harbatkin. “It is unclear exactly what effect this will have on Lyon-Martin, as we currently do not get this funding, although we are considering applying as a new access point.”

But, she says “it will affect the ability of community health centers to respond to the increased need for services expected from the implementation of the ACA.”

The ACA is President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. All three of the nation’s major LGBT legal groups signed onto a brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the ACA, noting that 30 percent of people with HIV are not able to obtain health insurance. Among other things, the ACA prohibits insurance companies from limiting or refusing coverage for a person with HIV, breast cancer, or any other disease. It also prohibits insurance companies from dropping a person’s coverage after the person became ill.Cece Cox, executive director of the Resource Center Dallas, an LGBT community organization, attended a December 5 meeting at the White House with 80 other Texas to discuss the impact of the fiscal cliff. In a letter to constituents about that meeting, Cox said the automatics spending cuts are “more than just pluses and minuses on a hypothetical budget sheet.”

“[R]eal people will feel the pain from these deep, drastic cuts,” said Cox.

And in an unusual move, a group of 29 wealthy LGBT Americans signed a December 5 letter to the leaders of both political parties in the House and Senate, saying that failure to find an agreement that prevents the government from going over the fiscal cliff would have a “huge impact” on the economy generally and the LGBT community specifically.

“For LGBT Americans, this ‘fiscal cliff’ isn’t just an abstract concept,” said the letter. “…Across-the-board cuts would compromise LGBT health by reducing programmatic funding used to address the health care needs of gay and transgender Americans, impair the federal government’s ability to investigate claims of workplace discrimination, and remove critical resources from government agencies working to prevent bullying and school violence.”

Signing onto the letter were LGBT philanthropists Tim Gill and David Bohnett, nationally known financial advisers Suze Orman and Andrew Tobias, former ETrade President Kathy Levinson, Equality Texas board member Paul Boskind and Texas-born filmmaker Dee Mosbacher, Chicago Cubs co-owner and Lambda Legal board member Laura Ricketts, Miami mortgage broker Joe Falk, and others. The letter indicated they all make more than $1 million per year, a group that President Obama hopes will shoulder a larger tax increase than most.

The letter cited a report last month from the Center for American Progress, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the national CenterLink federation of LGBT community centers, and 21 other national LGBT groups signed onto. The report estimates that funding for the Ryan White HIV program would lose about $196 million of funding in the first year, leaving as many as 9,000 patients without access to vital medications.

“Allowing sequestration to take place would hinder the government’s ability to investigate and prevent workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees. It would reduce programmatic funding to services aimed at addressing the specific health needs of gay and transgender people. It would reduce funding awarded to organizations working to reduce homelessness among gay and trans- gender youth. It would impede the government’s ability to prevent and address violent crime against gay and transgender people. And it would hinder diplomatic efforts to promote the human rights and basic safety of gay and transgender people around the globe,” said the report.

“In short, allowing sequestration to go into effect would be disastrous for gay and transgender Americans.”

At deadline, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Republican leader of the Republican-controlled House, were said to be in daily discussions to seek an agreement. But as of Tuesday afternoon, Boehner was still complaining that the White House had not agreed to identify any spending cuts, and President Obama told an audience in Michigan Monday that Congress needs to raise taxes on Americans making $1 million or more per year in income.

According to The Hill newspaper, a Capitol Hill news organization, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says President Obama’s proposal would reduce the debt from 75 percent of the Gross Domestic Product to 73 percent within 10 years, while Boehner’s would reduce it to 72 percent. The special presidential commission charged with proposing a strategy for reducing the debt to 65.5 percent of the GDP by 2022.

LGBT candidates score long list of firsts

A first-ever openly gay person elected U.S. Senator, the largest ever number of openly LGBT people elected to Congress, two new speakers at state houses, the first-ever openly transgender person elected to a state legislature, and the first openly LGBT candidates elected in numerous states.

Mark Takano

A first-ever openly gay person elected U.S. Senator, the largest ever number of openly LGBT people elected to Congress, two new speakers at state houses, the first-ever openly transgender person elected to a state legislature, and the first openly LGBT candidates elected in numerous states.

That’s just a snapshot of what made Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe call November 6 a “breathtaking leap forward.”

Election Day 2012 contests for LGBT candidates spanned 37 states, including such conservative bastions and North Dakota and West Virginia. They included victories in seven out of eight federal office races, 71 out of 94 state offices, and 40 out of 50 local offices.

Of 152 LGBT candidates on the ballot November 6, 77 percent (118) won, while 22 percent (33) lost. One local election race is still pending. By comparison, in 2010, 65 percent (106) of 164 openly LGBT candidates won, according to the Victory Fund.

There were many historic firsts this year, including the high-profile victory of U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, overcoming a multi-million-dollar super PAC campaign against her by right-wing operative Karl Rove, to become the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate.

“It goes right up there in history with Ed Brooke of Massachusetts,” said long-time gay Democratic activist David Mixner. Brooke, a Republican, became the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate, in 1966.

“Words almost can’t describe the barriers this has broken down and it is a moment in the institution of the U.S. Senate that will be forever remembered,” said Mixner. He said Baldwin’s victory was in large part due to her being “a really great candidate who worked her ass off.”

But he also saw Baldwin’s victory and that of so many others November 6 as a “shift in attitudes” of American voters about LGBT officials and issues.

In California, teacher Mark Takano became the first openly gay person of color elected to Congress, winning a seat representing conservative Riverside, California. And four openly gay legislators were elevated to state legislative Speaker of the House –two new to the position and two re-installed.

Oregon State Rep. Tina Kotek, 46, who has been serving as the House Democratic leader, is now in a position to become the state’s first openly gay Speaker and, thus, the first lesbian to head of a state legislative chamber anywhere in the country. Kotek, a three-term representative of North Portland, helped pass legislation in 2007 to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.  The Statesman Journal credited Kotek with having “engineered” the Oregon House’s new Democratic majority. Her areas of focus have been education, health, and fighting hunger.

State Rep. Mark Ferrandino, 35, a Democrat representing Denver, was the unanimous choice of the Democratic majority in Colorado’s 65- member House of Representatives. Ferrandino will receive the gavel in January from outgoing Republican Speaker Frank McNulty, who killed a civil union bill poised for passage by sending it back to committee last May. Openly gay Colorado State Senator Pat Steadman was a potential candidate for president of the State Senate but was beat out by a strong LGBT civil rights supporter, John Morse, from conservative Colorado Springs.

And two incumbent speakers will hold onto their positions: Rhode Island Speaker Gordon Fox and California Speaker John Perez.

Fox, re-nominated House Speaker November 9, was at the center of controversy recently for setting aside a marriage equality bill and pushing instead for a civil unions bill. The bill passed and represented a step forward for the state, but many LGBT activists were sorely disappointed at Fox’s tactical decision –to push for what he knew would pass– rather than insist on full equality. Fox, 50, represents Providence and is an attorney. He was first elected to the House in 1992, was elected majority leader in 2002, and was first elected speaker in 2010.

California Assembly Democrats unanimously chose John Perez to serve as speaker again. Perez, a 43-year-old union organizer from Los Angeles, was first elected speaker in 2010, becoming the state’s first openly gay speaker.

The first openly gay speaker of any state legislative chamber in the country was Allan Spear. Spear, a staunch leader for LGBT civil rights, led the Minnesota Senate from 1992 until 2000. He was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the nation, having come out two years after his first election to the state senate in 1972. He died in 2008, from complications of heart surgery.

In other historic election news November 6, Democrat Stacie Laughton became the first openly transgender person to be elected to a state legislature, winning a seat representing her hometown of Nashua in the New Hampshire state house. Laughton, who owns and operates a small business selling environmentally friendly products, had already been elected to public office once, serving on the Nashua Board of Selectmen. Her issues of focus have been helping the homeless and supporting a proposed commuter rail.

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which helps direct funding to openly LGBT candidates, did not include Laughton on its list of endorsed candidates but issued a statement celebrating her historic victory. Laughton lives with her campaign manager and former wife Lisa Laughton.

Almost as remarkable as the first transgender election was the election of openly gay candidates in North Dakota and West Virginia. Democrat Joshua Boschee won a seat to the North Dakota state house, being the top vote-getter (3,411 votes) out of four candidates for two seats representing North Fargo. Boschee, a native of North Dakota, has been involved in both city, community, and LGBT institutions. And Democrat Stephen Skinner, an attorney and founder of Fairness West Virginia, a statewide LGBT civil rights group, beat his Republican opponent by 699 votes –less than one percent of the 7,475 cast in the House of Delegates race to become the state’s first openly gay legislator.

And the list goes on. Other standout LGBT candidates on November 6:

  • Following her primary campaign for the Texas legislature this summer, Democrat Mary Gonzalez identified herself as a pansexual and ran unopposed in the general election, securing a seat representing El Paso. On her campaign website, she noted that she is board co-chair of allgo, a “statewide queer people of color organization” and has been involved with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
  • Washington State Senator Ed Murray, 57, who championed the marriage equality bill in the legislature this year that led to the successful ballot vote November 6, will become the second openly gay person ever chosen to lead as a State Senate Majority Leader there. Minnesota’s Spear was the first ever to hold that position in a state senate. Murray is a Democrat from Seattle.
  • Democrat Jacob Candelaria, 25, won a New Mexico state senate seat representing Albuquerque in his first run for public office. After winning 69 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, he was unopposed for seat from the heavily Democratic district November 6 and became the first openly gay man to be elected to the New Mexico legislature.
  • Angie Buhl, 27, won re-election to her State Senate seat in South Dakota, representing Sioux Falls. Before her first election in 2010, she worked as a consultant to Equality South Dakota. She beat her competitor by winning 2,973 votes, or 55 percent of the senate voting district. The Argus Leader newspaper characterized Buhl’s race as one of the “most hotly contested legislative match ups this year.” Her opponent was another Democrat who had held the seat until 2010 and ran as an independent to oppose Buhl in the general election. The newspaper endorsed Buhl.
  • Democrat Kay Floyd took 69 percent of the vote to win her Oklahoma City district State House seat held by openly gay politician Al McAffrey, who is now in the state senate.
  • Marcus Brandon, who in 2010 won his first-time run for state representative in North Carolina, becoming the state’s first openly gay member of the House, won re-election unopposed November 6, and
  • Lesbian Kate Brown won re-election as Oregon’s Secretary of State, despite a well-funded Republican challenge.
  • And Kyrsten Sinema’s lead for a Congressional House seat representing the Mesa, Arizona, area has grown to more than 7,000, as of Monday. When confirmed by the secretary of state, she’ll become the first openly bisexual person to be elected to Congress.

At deadline, biotech manager Steve Hansen was still awaiting results of a tally of remaining votes in his race for the Sacramento City Council. As of November 14, he was only 108 votes ahead of opponent Joe Yee. Sacramento election officials plan to provide another update November 15.

Throughout 2012, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund tracked a total of 177 LGBT candidates in all in 2012, though 25 of those lost their primary races earlier in the year.

Baldwin makes history, heads to U.S. Senate

In an historic victory Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Her victory, along with the apparent wins of six out of seven openly LGBT candidates for the U.S. House, marks a new high for the number of openly LGBT members of Congress: seven.

Tammy Baldwin

In an historic victory Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

Her victory, along with the apparent wins of six out of seven openly LGBT candidates for the U.S. House, marks a new high for the number of openly LGBT members of Congress: seven. The previous high was four.

The success come against a backdrop of partisan control in the Senate and House which will remain the same as before—Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the House.

In her acceptance speech, Baldwin acknowledged the historic nature of her win.

“I’m well aware that I will have the honor to be the first woman senator from Wisconsin, and I’m well aware that I will be the first openly gay member of the United States Senate,” said Baldwin.

“I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference—a difference in the lives of families struggling to find work and pay the bills, a difference in the lives of students worried about debt and seniors worried about their retirement security, a difference in the lives veterans who fought for us and need someone fighting for them and their families when they return home from war, a difference in the lives of entrepreneurs trying to build a business and working people trying to build some economic security,” said Baldwin.

The six other victors Tuesday night were incumbent Democratic Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado and David Cicilline of Rhode Island. Joining them will be two new members of the House—Mark Pocan, who won Baldwin’s seat from Wisconsin, and Sean Maloney of New York. And as of Wednesday evening, Democrat Mark Takano had taken 13-point lead in his race for the House seat representing the 41st Congressional district of California, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

Also Wednesday evening, the Arizona Secretary of State’s website showed all precincts counted in Congressional District 9, and openly bisexual Arizona State Senator Krysten Sinema with a 2,101-vote lead over Republican opponent Vernon Parker. If Sinema, 36, is certified the winner, she’ll represent Tempe, Mesa, and Scottsdale and become only the first openly bisexual candidate to win a seat to Congress.

The only loss among openly gay Congressional candidates Tuesday night was Republican Richard Tisei, who lost a very close race against Democratic incumbent John Tierney in Massachusetts.

Election Night Beverage Guide

Many LGBT people will be spending the evening November 6 watching election returns. With the outcomes still uncertain in many cases and likely to take hours to discern, one question may emerge for many poll watchers: What shall we sip?

Many LGBT people will be spending the evening November 6 watching election returns. With the outcomes still uncertain in many cases and likely to take hours to discern, one question may emerge for many poll watchers: What shall we sip as we watch CNN play with its “Magic Board” of electoral votes or Rachel Maddow opine on MSNBC? Are there guidelines to advise us beyond the “Drink responsibly” and “Don’t drive drunk” mantras of healthy living?

Here is a paired menu of suggestions for what to imbibe while watching results of the various races and measures likely to be tracked by many LGBT people. Whether one is celebrating or commiserating, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic options are provided.

Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington are all facing ballot measures that will determine whether same-sex couples can marry in their states. Drink: Champagne, traditionally associated with weddings, would be appropriate for any of the above. Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider works nicely as a non-alcoholic alternative.

A number of openly LGBT people are running for Congress, potentially bringing the caucus up to six.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is running for Senate, and State Rep. Mark Pocan, also gay, is running for her old seat. Drink: A Wisconsin beer. Wisconsin is known for its beer, a result of its many German immigrants. However, the state drink is milk, in honor of its dairy industry, so viewers who prefer something “official” might want to get milk.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) is trying to hold his U.S. House seat. Drink: Coffee milk is that state’s drink—a combination of milk and coffee syrup. For something similar tasting but with a little more kick, one can substitute a classic White Russian, a mix of coffee liquor, vodka, and milk.

Massachusetts State Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei would become the only openly gay Republican in the current Congress if he wins his race for U.S. representative. Drink: A Cape Cod—cranberry juice (the state drink) and vodka—or just cranberry juice.

Sean Patrick Maloney is contending for a U.S. House seat from New York’s Hudson Valley, our country’s oldest wine-making and grape-growing region. Drink: Hudson Valley wine (or grape juice).

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is running for re-election from Colorado—like Wisconsin, a state also known for its beer production. Drink: A Colorado beer (non-alcoholic if you prefer).

Arizona State Senator Kyrsten Sinema is running for a U.S. House seat. Drink: An Arizona Sunrise—tequila, lime juice, grenadine syrup, and orange juice. Leave out the tequila for a non-alcoholic version.

Educator Mark Takano is running for the U.S. House seat for California District 41, which includes the Mojave Desert. Drink: A desert martini (very dry). Non-alcoholic desert necessity: Just water.

Finally, the U.S. presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney looks to be a close one. Viewers supporting him might want to remember that Romney is Mormon, a religion that prohibits consumption of alcohol. It might be considerate not to drink alcohol in his name. Drink: Maalox to settle the stomach might be in order as the race goes down to the wire and into the wee hours of the night.

For those backing President Obama, note that he bought the White House kitchen a home beer-brewing kit last year, according to a September post on the White House blog. The kitchen has reportedly been whipping up a number of honey-based brews, with honey from a hive on the South Lawn. Drink: A honey-based beer, such as Sam Adams Honey Porter. For something non-alcoholic, try Honest Tea’s Black Forest Berry or Green Dragon flavors, two of the President’s favorites, according to the New York Times.

Rove outspending Thompson in Senate race against Baldwin

Karl Rove’s conservative super PAC Crossroads has poured more than $7 million into opposing U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s bid to become the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate.

Tammy Baldwin

Karl Rove’s conservative super PAC Crossroads has poured more than $7 million into opposing U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s bid to become the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. That’s as much as Republican Senate candidate Tommy Thompson’s own campaign has spent trying to win the seat. The dollar figures are high, but Rove notoriously orchestrated then President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election by setting up ballot measures opposing same-sex marriage in key states to attract conservatives.

As of the latest reports filed with and available from the Federal Elections Commission, Baldwin had raised $11 million to Thompson’s $7 million. And much of that money is apparently going into negative advertising by both candidates and their supporters and opponents. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that the Baldwin-Thompson race seems “destined to go down as one of the most negative U.S. Senate races in recent political history.”

In one ad, Thompson accuses Baldwin of having voted against honoring the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States. Baldwin responded that the bill in question, formulated in 2006, was not just a bill to honor the victims of 9-11. It was, as many pundits have pointed out, a Republican partisan construct to seek votes endorsing a number of then President George W. Bush’s policies. The 9-11 provision was inserted to put Democrats in the awkward position of either endorsing Bush policies or appearing to disrespect the victims of 9-11.

Baldwin has also been taking heat late in the campaign for having voted “present” in 2007 on a resolution calling on the United Nations to condemn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” Baldwin told the Milwaukee paper that she agreed with the sentiments of the resolution but voted present because she was afraid President Bush would use the passage of the resolution as a reason to go to war against Iran.

The polls in the past week have been roller-coastering. Thompson was up one point on October 14, then Baldwin was up four points October 17. As of October 25, Thompson was back up by one point.

Of the nine Senate races that are considered close contests, the Baldwin-Thompson race is the tightest. Democrats need the seat to maintain their grip on the Senate, and the LGBT community would like to have the first openly gay person win a seat to the U.S. Senate and provide a face and a voice for the community in such important proceedings as the confirmation of Supreme Court justices.

An early October survey of 979 likely voters in Wisconsin found that 44 percent had a “favorable opinion” of Baldwin, but 47 percent had an “unfavorable opinion.” But Thompson fared worse: 50 percent had an unfavorable opinion and 43 percent favorable.

A mid-October poll of 870 likely voters by Marquette University found Thompson with a one-point lead over Baldwin, a loss of a four-point lead Baldwin held just two weeks earlier. Poll director Charles Franklin told the Milwaukee Journal that the negative advertising appeared to be responsible for the trend.

As of October 28, realclearpolitics’ average of the most recent polls on the race in Wisconsin shows Baldwin with a one-point lead.

RACE TO REPLACE

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s openly gay State Rep. Mark Pocan is given good odds at winning the U.S. House seat left behind by Baldwin in her race for the Senate. The district has been considered solidly Democratic for the past five of Baldwin’s seven terms, a factor that bolsters Pocan’s prospects.

The owner of a print shop, married for six years to spouse Philip Frank, Pocan, 48, has served in the state Assembly for the past 13 years. In the state’s recent high-profile showdown between incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker and state union employees, Pocan sided with the unions. He was recognized by Planned Parenthood for his effort in writing and pushing for passage of a “Compassionate Care for Rape Victims Act,” to require Wisconsin hospital emergency rooms to inform and, if requested, provide to rape victims emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy following an assault.

If elected, Pocan will likely join re-elected openly gay Democratic members of the U.S. House Jared Polis of Colorado, David Cicilline of Rhode Island.

Baldwin edges into the lead

After trailing a popular former governor for weeks, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin has now edged into the lead for the U.S. Senate seat from Wisconsin.

Tammy Baldwin

After trailing a popular former governor for weeks, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin has now edged into the lead for the U.S. Senate seat from Wisconsin.

But there are still five long weeks to go before November 6, right-wing political groups are pouring millions into television ads that label Baldwin as “extreme” and “not in the mainstream.” And last Friday, September 28, the issue of same-sex marriage came up in the first debate.

The “debate” was more of a joint interview of the two candidates by a panel of reporters, and same-sex marriage was just one topic on which the two candidates showed themselves to be starkly different.

One of three panelists asking questions noted that different states are doing different things about same-sex marriage, then asked, “What’s your stand on that?”

Republican candidate Tommy Thompson went first and harkened back six years, to when voters approved a state constitutional amendment to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages or civil unions, by a vote of 59 percent to 41 percent.

“Seventy-one out of the 72 counties voted for a constitutional amendment in Wisconsin. I support those 71 counties –that same-sex marriage is not legal in the state of Wisconsin, and I support that,” said Thompson, looking at the reporter. “It’s an issue that’s left up to the states and that’s the way it should be.”

In a commentary Sunday in the Milwaukee Journal, commentator Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, described Thompson’s response this way: “At one point during his answer, he paused for a good five seconds to navigate all the land mines that were likely lodged in his mind.  It was evident he had a vision of Tammy Baldwin dancing with Wonder Woman floating around in his head and needed a quiet moment to suppress it.”

But Baldwin appeared surprisingly guarded and stiff with her response on same-sex marriage during the debate. Looking straight into the camera and with an almost hushed tone and strained expression on her face, she said, “I believe in the principles of equality and I certainly support marriage equality. I recognize what the voters of Wisconsin decided in 2006. We know that, every year, people are thinking about this issue and changing their minds.” She noted she was “very moved” when President Obama explained to an ABC interviewer in May how he his personal opinion had evolved to support marriage equality.

Baldwin’s answer was expected. And Thompson’s answer was only marginally evolved from earlier responses he has given on same-sex marriage. During the Republican primary, he said, “I believe very strongly in the Defense of the Marriage Act (sic), that marriage is one man and one woman. I support that. That’s the federal law.”

In that interview August 3 with CBS affiliate WDJT, Thompson did express being a little “gun shy” about constitutional amendments, generally. Still, he said he favors DOMA and believes “marriage should be left up to the states.”

The race is very close and is beginning to turn nasty. In the debate September 28, Thompson said Baldwin is “not in the mainstream,” a seeming reference to her being gay, though it wasn’t at all clear that he intended it that way. He also claimed she was the “Number One Liberal” in the U.S. House, and the “Number One Spender.”

Pro-Thompson television ads label Baldwin as “extreme” –“too extreme for Wisconsin.” The Karl Rove group called Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies is pouring millions of dollars into the campaign to air television ads that also label Baldwin as “extreme” and show her angrily saying “You’re damn right we’re making a difference” about something.  Other big spenders opposing Baldwin include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Club for Growth Action, according to Federal Elections Commission records.

Baldwin is also hoping to become the first openly gay person to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She and Thompson seek a seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl.

The New York Times election numbers cruncher, fivethirtyeight.com, currently gives Baldwin a 76 percent chance at winning the seat with 51 percent of the vote. Its average of polls shows Baldwin with a 2.6-point lead.

Two more debates are scheduled between the two –October 18 and October 26.