LGBT Equality at a Crossroads in the Midterm Elections
Heading into the 2010 midterm elections, several federal and state battles are potentially poised to determine the future of the struggle for LGBT equality. "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" is teetering on the brink of repeal, and California’s Proposition 8 seems headed for the U.S. Supreme Court—but conservative Tea Party momentum and pervasive anti-incumbent sentiment threatens to topple the Democratic majority in Congress. Here’s a look at the current status of some major issues impacting the LGBT community—and the good, the bad and the ugly of key races.
California voters passed Proposition 8, also known as the California Marriage and Protection Act, in November 2008. Since then, the constitutional amendment forcing the state to recognize only the marriages of straight couples has spurred a flurry of lawsuits, including Perry v. Schwarzenegger. In that case, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Prop. 8 violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California Attorney General/Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown are not contesting this decision. Meanwhile, GOP candidate for governor and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has stated that she would directly appeal the decision herself if elected, which would bring the most potent challenge to the Prop. 8 decision thus far. The likely outcome? A U.S. Supreme Court battle over marriage rights in the near future. The most recent Rasmussen poll has Brown defeating Whitman by up to six points, so the California Governor's office may turn blue—a hopeful sign for the eventual defeat of the anti-gay Prop. 8.
"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell"
There has been major movement on the possible repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy recently in federal court as the result of the lawsuit Log Cabin Republicans v. The United States of America. On Sept. 9, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled DADT unconstitutional because it violates the 1st and 5th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. On Oct. 12, Judge Virginia Phillips ordered an immediate injunction against the policy, suspending DADT worldwide. The federal government requested a stay on that injunction, but Phillips denied the stay. The 9th Court of Appeals did, however, grant the government a temporary “emergency stay’ on Oct. 20, pending a preliminary appeals hearing scheduled for Oct. 25. Confusion surrounds the status of LGBT service members currently enlisted and whether DADT still applies during the temporary stay. Pentagon officials previously stated they would abide by Phillips' injunction.
President Obama says that he wants to repeal "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" legislatively, though his administration’s Department of Justice is working to uphold the law in court. Even Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who first implemented the policy, says he would like to see it repealed.
Given that the current Democrat-controlled Congress voted against repealing DADT as part of the National Defense Authorization bill in October, the prospect of a Republican-run Congress after the 2010 midterm elections would in all probability mean waiting at another two years for a similar bill to reach the House floor.
TEA PARTY PERIL
Nonexistent in the 2008 elections, but now a major force in shaping the midterm election in 2010, the Tea Party is focused on radically reducing the size of the federal government. Less well known is the anti-gay rhetoric of many prominent Tea Party candidates—and their ties to anti-gay organizations.
Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate from Nevada challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for his seat in the U.S. Senate—is a radical conservative who has stated that she wants to eliminate Social Security, the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. She doesn’t believe gay Americans should be able to adopt children. Yet polls show her more or less neck-in-neck with Sen. Reid, a longtime public servant who most recently lobbied for the passage of DADT’s repeal as part of the Defense Authorization Bill in the House.
Community activists on the ground who know Angle best frame her as an enemy of the LGBT community. “Sharron Angle has been an opponent of LGBT equality. With Senator Reid at the forefront of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s’ repeal, he has been our strongest ally," says Adrian Matanza, the Human Rights Campaign’s regional field organizer in Nevada. "Sending Sharron Angle [to the Senate] would kill any chance of repealing DADT and any chance of passing an inclusive-Employment Non-Discrimination Act.”
On the East Coast, Angle's Tea Party compatriot is Christine O’Donnell, the Republican candidate vying for an open Senate seat in Delaware. O'Donnell's kooky credentials include accusing an openly gay U.S. ambassador of being tied to what she referred to as “the pedophile rights movement,” "dabbling" in Wicca; speaking out against masturbation; and advocating for the teaching of creationism in public schools.
Christine O’Donnell managed to knock out incumbent Sen. Mike Castle during the Delaware primaries, but as of early October, O’Donnell—whom Sarah Palin has endorsed—was polling at least 17 points behind her Democratic opponent, Attorney General Chris Coons.
And like O’Donnell, Joe Miller, the Tea Party-endorsed Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska, defeated a sitting GOP senator to run this November. Miller shares Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s desire to dismantle the Department of Education, do away with unemployment benefits, and abolish the federal minimum wage.
LGBT advocates are concerned that Terry Moffitt, chairman of the "virulently anti-gay" Family Policy Network, is on Miller's campaign payroll. Moffitt's group has launched initiatives to "cure" gays and lesbians through prayer. Complicating the race in Alaska is Lisa Murkowski, the GOP incumbent whom Miller defeated in the primaries. Murkowski has launched an uncommonly successful write-in campaign, and polls cited by the New York Times predicted she could be the first write-in candidate to win a Senate seat since 1954.
Polls show Miller and Murkowski with only one percentage point between them, and Scott McAdams, the Democratic candidate, trailing with 27 percent. Without Murkowski’s write-in campaign, the margin between Miller and McAdams would presumably be much higher.
STATE AND LOCAL ISSUES
LGBT political activists are relieved that no referenda banning gay marriage are in play this cycle. "We haven't seen any major statewide anti-LGBTQ initiatives on the ballot this year. In previous years, right-wing groups have tried to use these issues to increase turnout among far-right voters, but there is no compelling evidence that it has worked," says Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center. "The absence of these initiatives in 2010 resonates with what many people already sense, that attacking the LGBTQ community for political sport is not only morally bankrupt, but simply an ineffective strategy."
There has been progress on certain LGBT rights issues, including a greater number of safe schools bills to protect LGBT youth from bullying. These bills are critical to helping LGBT students feel protected and comfortable in school, where a shockingly high percentage of students report experiencing harassment. A 2007 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that nine out of 10 LGBT students (86.2 percent) were harassed at school, while three-fifths (60.8 percent) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.
Forty states currently enforce anti-bullying laws, and states like North Carolina and Illinois either already have or will have specific provisions protecting LGBT youth. New Jersey legislators just introduced measures to strengthen the state's current anti-bullying law. After a recent series of senseless suicides among young gay people, these bills may help prevent another teen from ending his or her life.
While no initiatives exist to put gay marriage on state ballots this cycle, an unusually high number of Democratic governors’ seats are up for grabs. One of the most closely watched gubernatorial races is in Minnesota, where the Target Corporation's decision to donate money to anti-gay GOP candidate Tom Emmer infuriated LGBT advocates and led to a boycott of the chain by many gay and lesbian consumers. His Democratic opponent, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, seems poised to take the open seat vacated by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Dayton’s record on LGBT rights, according to HRC, includes a 100 percent positive voting record in the past three congressional sessions, and is underscored by his comprehensive LGBT rights platform, which touts his willingness to pass marriage equality as governor and his commitment to passing a safe schools bill to prevent violence and suicide.
The most recent polling has Dayton at 44 percent, Emmer at 41 percent, and Independent candidate Tom Horner at 10 percent. Fortunately for Democrats in this race, there appears to be no enthusiasm gap between the two parties—87 percent of Republicans plan on supporting Emmer, while 86 percent of Democrats will pull the lever for Dayton—a key reason why this seat should flip from red to blue when Pawlenty retires.
Currently Congress boasts only three openly gay members, all in the House of Representatives: Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who was the first openly gay man elected to the House. After November, candidates David Cicciline, mayor of Providence, R.I.; Steve Pougnet, mayor of Palm Springs, Calif.; and Ed Potosnak, a high school science teacher running in New Jersey, may join their ranks.
All three are in races against incumbent Republicans who oppose marriage equality and DADT’s repeal. In Potosnak’s race for New Jersey's 7th Congressional District, recent polling found that only 31 percent of voters want to keep Leonard Lance, their current Congressman. Polling from the nonpartisan Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed that Republican voters were more willing to elect a Democrat, in a reverse of the “throw the bums out” fever that seems to be hurting Democratic incumbents nationally.
"As one of three openly gay challengers for Congress, I am committed to working for marriage equality. We have civil unions here in New Jersey, but we know that separate is not equal. In Congress, I will fight hard for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act," Potosnak said.
The first openly gay mayor of a U.S. state capitol, Cicciline is running for the 1st Congressional District seat formerly held by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and is facing off against state Rep. John Jay Loughlin II, who recently called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”
Meanwhile, Pougnet is challenging Rep. Mary Bono Mack in what observers call a close race to represent California's 45th Congressional District.
Despite media pundits' predictions of a Republican rout in the 2010 midterms, there rays of hope remain for gains in the fight for LGBT equality. Pro-equality candidates stand to pick up key seats—and may yet turn the tide in our favor.
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