WASHINGTON — When Mark Takano ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice in the early 1990s in California, his opponents tried to smear him as a “homosexual liberal" and a “nutzoid." One of them even had pink fliers printed that asked, “A congressman for Riverside ... Or San Francisco?"
When he ran again last year, he won by almost 20 points. “Flash forward 18 years," Takano said recently, “and the very macho building tradesmen are behind me. I’m getting pictures with them in their hard hats."
For decades, the words “gay" and “Congress" were usually seen together only in stories of scandal and shame: an arrest after an illicit proposition in an airport bathroom, accusations of trawling for sex on a phone service. When Gerry Studds came out 30 years ago, the first congressman to do so, it was only after an affair with a 17-year-old congressional page was revealed.
But in the 113th Congress there are six openly gay and bisexual members in the House — a small but tangible sign that their presence at the highest levels of government is no longer something only whispered about.
The Senate has its first lesbian, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. The lawmakers’ partners, no longer relegated to the shadows or introduced generically as “friends," stood beside them on the House floor when they were sworn in this month. Their adopted children are attending congressional retreats.
And this week they sat in President Barack Obama’s presence as he insisted on equality for “our gay brothers and sisters," words few of them ever expected to hear in a president’s inaugural address.
A slow transition
Yet even with the opportunities gay men, lesbians and bisexuals say their membership in Congress presents, their reception has not been a completely warm one. One of the first acts of the Republican-controlled House was to set aside funds to defend the 1996 law that prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages because the Obama administration has stopped supporting it. And not everyone seems completely comfortable with their presence, like members of a Christian prayer group who seemed taken aback at a recent congressional retreat when one noted he was married to a man. But in some ways the most telling sign of the gay lawmakers’ advancement in Congress is the fact that their presence is now a little more routine.
“It’s becoming — ever so slowly — more than a novelty to be a gay member of Congress," said Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island. Like all the openly gay, lesbian and bisexual members, Cicilline is a Democrat.
Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado observed that it was not too long ago “when it was just Barney and Tammy." He was referring to Baldwin, a member of the House before she was elected to the Senate, and Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who retired but was the first member of Congress to speak openly about his homosexuality.
“But with six of us" in the House, “it’s harder to keep track. And it’s always going to be assumed that there are gays and lesbians in the room," added Polis, who has a young son with his partner and is the most senior gay member of the House. Together the six of them will lead a caucus that will champion gay rights and other equal protection issues. The other members will be Cicilline; Takano of California; Sean Patrick Maloney of New York; Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is bisexual; and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin.
Pocan was elected to fill Baldwin’s House seat. In the last Congress, there were four openly gay or lesbian House members and none in the Senate.
The retirement of Frank, long the dominant voice on gay rights in Congress, also opens the door to some of the newer, fresher faces to take more visible and influential roles. “Barney Frank, who we all know and love, is one of those larger-than-life personalities," Polis said. “But certainly the way I’d approach this is in a much more collaborative manner."
‘An amazing leap forward’
Seven out of 535 is still relatively small. It equals just over 1 percent of the seats in the House and Senate.
“Seven isn’t great," conceded Denis Dison, a senior strategist with the Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people to public office.
Dison said he had recently added up the numbers of people who have served in Congress since the country’s birth. It added up to nearly 12,000, he said, and he can still count on both hands the number of those who were openly gay. “But there was an amazing leap forward in 2012 relative to history," Dison added. “And in 2014 if two or three or four more out candidates are elected, this is not going to seem as big an accomplishment."
The makeup of the Republican-controlled House shows just how much of a climb gay rights supporters face. The Human Rights Campaign said that it counts only 184 of 435 members as solid supporters on the issue. By contrast, it counts 220 — a majority — as opponents of gay rights.
In the Senate, the group says it considers 42 members opposed to gay rights and 42 in favor.
And the new gay members say there have been awkward moments. Pocan said that when he was at a recent retreat for new members, representatives from a Christian organization stopped in to ask him if he would be interested in attending one of their prayer groups. One of them asked him if his wife had accompanied him to the retreat. He is married and wears a ring.
“I said, ‘No, but my husband did,’" he recalled. An awkward pause followed. “Then she said, ‘Well, we have more offices to go to now.’"
For some of the gay members, their freshmen orientation sessions were a reminder of just how unequally the law treats them, since the entity that cuts their paychecks and provides benefits — the U.S. government — is barred from recognizing their relationships.
“They would be explaining what your benefits were, then all of a sudden this embarrassed look would flash across their face like, ‘Oh, sorry. I guess this doesn’t apply to you,’" Maloney said.
At a ceremonial swearing-in this month by John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, standing alongside Maloney were his partner of 20 years and their three adopted children.