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A call to arms in Congress: heads up, President Bush: the new Democratic Congress is gay-friendly and prepared to put your antigay mettle to the test.

For the past six years LGBT issues have been sitting on the back burner of Washington politics--that is, unless the issue was about limiting our rights.

But the Democrats now control both houses of Congress, and their gay members and constituents are finding themselves back on the hot list. "The first thing to celebrate is that under Democratic control we will not have to face defensive battles against antigay legislation or future marriage amendments," says Democratic Wisconsin representative Tammy Baldwin, Congress's only out lesbian. "That took up so much of our time, energy, and attention."

Call it a backlash against the antigay regime led by President Bush's allies in Congress. Bills to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and provide protections against discrimination and violent crimes are now getting serious consideration. Despite predictions that the Democrats would have to move toward the middle and abandon gay rights issues to get what they want in a divided Congress, most of the people interviewed for this story say the opposite is happening.

In fact, a kind of "call to arms" for gay causes by gay lawmakers, their allies, and gay lobbyists is taking shape. And that call isn't just from Democrats. "Before, we didn't have a shot to get any of these bills through," says Connecticut Republican representative Christopher Shays, a moderate who survived a strong Democratic challenge. "Now we have a shot, and that's significant in and of itself."

Others in Congress agree that one or two pieces of pro-gay legislation are likely to pass in the upcoming session and go to President Bush. Will he sign a pro-gay bill?

"Bush decided long ago to be homophobic," says gay Democratic Massachusetts representative Barney Frank skeptically. "I don't see how we can reach him on this." (Calls to the White House by The Advocate seeking comment were not returned at press time.)

Still, it's important that gay rights legislation sees the light of day, adds Baldwin. "Under Republican control there was not a single hearing on these issues, so we missed the opportunity to educate the American people," she says. "Through the hearing process we can lay the groundwork for significant political strides. What the president will do is unclear. He has voiced opposition to some of these bills."

Ever optimistic about the Republican Party, Patrick Sammon, executive vice president of the gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans, hopes the November 7 defeat of such antigay Republican stalwarts as Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. John Hostettler of Indiana may have sent a message to Bush that divisive antigay politics are no longer a winning strategy. "Our hope is that the president returns to core conservative values" like small government, he says.

Bush did take at least one lesson from the elections. "[Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld is gone," says Joe Solmonese, president of the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. "So he's shown a willingness to change course based on the election results. He still might veto our legislation, but he's not up for reelection, so it remains to be seen whether or not he'll want to soften his edges."

In other words, does Bush, who has one eye on forming his legacy, want to go down in history as the president who vetoed a bill that would have allowed Americans to do their jobs? Shays is not concerned. "I would like to see both [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] and 'don't ask, don't tell' [repeal] legislation passed and just let the chips fall where they may," he says.

HRC has been advocating for a number of bills, many of which deal with expanding spousal and family rights to same-sex couples, including federal pension and Social Security survivor benefits. But they will not be the focus of the next Congress, say advocates-particularly the Uniting American Families Act (formerly the Permanent Partners Immigration Act), which would make it easier for foreign same-sex partners to immigrate. "That's a harder issue," says Frank. "Anything opening up immigration is a hard sell right now, so combining gays with that anti-immigrant bent makes that a very hard issue."

Pro-gay legislation in the next session's "call to arms" will likely include the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, ENDA, and the Military Readiness Enhancement Act.

The Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act

This bill, previously known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed the House in September 2005 by a strong bipartisan vote of 223-199, seeks to add sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability to federal hate-crimes law. Since it already passed the House once, under Republican control, passage under the Democrats seems assured.

"Of all the bills of interest to our community, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act has the best chance of passage in the next Congress," says Baldwin. "It's the one piece of legislation that has been debated and voted on. There is a greater level of familiarity with this issue."

The Senate also passed a version of this bill, back in June 2000 by a 57-42 vote. Still, gay activists now wonder: With all the other issues that Democrats ran on--changing the Iraq war strategy and raising the minimum wage--will there be the time or the will to take on gay issues?

Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy, a sponsor of the Senate bill, says yes. "Democrats are the party of hope, progress, and opportunity, and we're ready to lead," Kennedy tells The Advocate. "We're ready to put cynical, divisive politics behind us. We're ready to fight for full civil rights for all our people."

Employment Non-Discrimination Act

ENDA, which has been hanging around Capitol Hill in one form or another for decades, seeks to outlaw discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This legislation has a good chance of passing both houses in the next session, says Shays.

However, he believes Bush is likely to veto the bill, especially now that it includes protections for transgender Americans. "I think he would be less inclined to veto the bill if it did not have that provision," says Shays.

But advocates say the provisions regarding gender and gender identity are necessary and will not deter the bill's progress. And Congress may feel pressure from the private sector. According to HRC, 51 Fortune 500 companies include transgender people in nondiscrimination policies, up 89% from 2003.

Military Readiness Enhancement Act

Introduced in March 2005 by Democratic Massachusetts representative Martin Meehan, this bill seeks to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay and lesbian service personnel. The bill stands a good chance of passing, advocates argue, because it's about national security. "This issue cuts across party lines, because it's not just an LGBT issue but an issue of military readiness," says Steve Rails, director of communications for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates for gay soldiers.

Solmonese says Congress could pass the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, one of the other two bills, or all three. But he implored gays and lesbians not to feel discouraged if they don't see any progress right away. "Anyone who expects these bills to come up in the first 30 or 60 days doesn't understand how Congress works," he says. "For the hate-crimes bill, for example, it will take 90 days just to get the cosponsors together. Our peril comes when we begin to speculate that if our issues aren't addressed right away, then [Speaker-designate] Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the leadership are distancing themselves from us. I know Nancy Pelosi well. I know her commitment, and Pelosi will not do that."

Kuhr is the editor at large of the Boston-based In Newsweekly newspaper.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:ELECTION
Author:Kuhr, Fred
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Legislation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 19, 2006
Words:1273
Previous Article:Young, gay, and powerful.
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