Last month, a veritable Who's Who of religious political extremists held a rally in Iowa to kick off their "National Campaign to Protect Marriage." As G.O.P. Presidential candidates tripped over each other in their rush to sign the group's homophobic "Marriage Protection Resolution," Melbourne Mayor Bill Crews (an openly gay, church-going Republican) led a candlelight vigil to protest the politics of hatred and fear.
This same scene -- professional politicians pandering to a mean-spirited minority while an openly gay elected official appeals to the fair-minded majority -- is now being played out in legislatures across the country. Same-sex marriage is the Radical Right's latest call-to-arms, and openly gay and lesbian officials are on the front lines against this hateful assault on our community. As Wisconsin's openly lesbian State Representative Tammy Baldwin told reporters, "This isn't about Gay marriage. It's about stirring up hatred and fear for the sake of political expediency."
Bills prohibiting same-sex marriage have already been introduced in 20 states, and more are in the works. Although most of the bills are blatantly anti-gay, some legislators are experimenting with a stealth approach. A Rhode Island State Representative recently introduced a "Solemnization of Marriages" bill to recognize marriages performed in other states as long as they "comport with and meet all conditions and requirements" of Rhode Island law. When Rhode Island's openly gay State Senator Will Fitzpatrick asked the purpose of this vaguely worded legislation, the sponsor indicated it was aimed at nullifying marriages between first cousins wed in another state. In fact, Rhode Island is one of the few states that allows first cousin marriages.
Fitzpatrick immediately contacted human rights activists and the press, calling the bill "a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing" and suggesting that the sponsor should "come clean with his real reason for submitting this bill." The sponsor finally admitted that the bill was filed in response to the likely legalization of same-sex marriages by the Hawaii Supreme Court, and the House Judiciary Committee abruptly shelved the bill... for the time being.
The marriage battle makes it crystal clear that electing qualified openly gay and lesbian officials must be an integral part of our struggle for equal rights. As the Rhode Island case shows, our gay officials are an early warning system when anti-gay attacks are imminent. Because they have a place at the table, they can use the legislative process to diffuse an attack; by stalling a bill until lawmakers have time to examine the consequences, for example, or by shepherding a bill into gay-supportive (or at least less hostile) committees. And they can help neutralize the other side's anti-gay propaganda by keeping the public and press focused on what the real issues are.
Even more important in the long run, openly gay legislators are in a unique position to educate the public and their fellow lawmakers on what homosexuality is and isn't. No matter how gay-friendly a straight legislator is, when the debate turns to gay marriage, he or she can never stand up and say, "You're talking about me." When openly gay officials personalize the debate in this way, it has an amazing effect on their colleagues. As California's openly lesbian State Assemblymember Sheila Kuehl notes, "Having to confront this issue with a real person there, face to face, is causing my colleagues to really think about this at a level that used to be just knee-jerk."
All the polls show that people who know someone gay are less likely to support anti-gay legislation, so the high visibility and positive public image of openly gay officials make it much harder for professional gaybashers to demonize our community. Because their personal and community values are consistent with those of the average American (values like hard work, civic responsibility, and respect for others), each of our openly gay and lesbian officials is a living, breathing contradiction to the Radical Right's stereotype of homosexuals as antisocial deviants.
Unfettered by the traditional values they pretend to preach, religious political extremists are exploiting the same-sex marriage issue to legislate hatred and bigotry. The good news is that our openly gay and lesbian state legislators are doing everything they can to put an end to these political hate crimes. The not-so-good news is that out of the 7,600 elected officials currently serving in state legislatures, only 17 are openly gay or lesbian, and they hold office in just 12 of our 50 states Arizona, California, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.
The challenge we face is unequivocal. We must elect qualified openly gay and lesbian legislators to every state house and every state senate in the country. The greater the number of openly gay and lesbian legislators, the sooner we can stop the superbigots and their never-ending battle for untruth, injustice, and un-American ways.