Working for the enemy: some of ENDA’s biggest opponents on Capitol are being assisted by a most unusual group – gay men and lesbians – Employment Non-Discrimination Act

Chris Bull

In June 1996 Tracey St. Pierre was sitting at her desk in the office of Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), where she served as chief of staff, watching C-SPAN as her employer lauded the Defense of Marriage Act. “It finally hit me right then that as a gay person I couldn’t keep working for someone who would support a bill like that,” she says. “I told myself that someday I would work for [one of the groups] that were testifying against the bill. “

St. Pierre is now employed by the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, where she lobbies for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But she is one of the few to go from secrecy to advocacy so quickly and dramatically. According to Washington insiders, scores of conservative legislators who have stalled ENDA for the foreseeable future employ high-placed gay and lesbian staffers who fear they will lose their jobs if they come out at the office.

“Congress is one of the most closeted institutions in the country, ” says Rich Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group. “When I make my rounds on the Hill, I’m always amazed at the number of staffers who come up to me and in one way or another let me know they are gay without actually saying it. Members [of Congress] argue that ENDA just isn’t necessary, while their own gay staffers live in fear that they will lose their jobs if their bosses learn the truth about their sexual orientation.

At an October 23 Senate hearing, ENDA, a procession of gay men and lesbians testified to the discrimination they’ve faced in the workplace. Corporate executives, including Raymond Smith of Bell Atlantic, one of the country’s largest employers, spoke in favor of the legislation. Yet by all accounts, prospects for the bill are grim: HRC counts 188 cosponsors–35 in the Senate and 153 in the House. And while more in Congress are likely to vote for the measure, those numbers don’t indicate the kind of momentum necessary for the bill to pass.

As an employer Congress lags behind the hundreds of universities, municipal governments, and corporations that have banned antigay discrimination on the job. Until 1995 Congress exempted itself from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. House rules prohibit members from making employment decisions based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age, but those rules make no mention of sexual orientation. The District of Columbia has enacted legislation forbidding antigay discrimination, but that ordinance does not apply to Congress.

In 1993 three Oklahoma congressmen announced that they would not knowingly hire gays or lesbians as aides. The representatives-Bill Brewster, Jim Inhofe, and Ernest Istook — cited various reasons for their positions, including ideological incompatibility and biblical injunctions against homosexuality. One of the three congressmen had a closeted gay aide quietly working hard to keep his sexual orientation a secret from his employer. After the congressman’s views became public, the aide left to work for a Southern Republican whose position on gay issues is more moderate. Still, his new boss voted with Canady for the Defense of Marriage Act.

The aide, who spoke to The Advocate on the condition of anonymity, says that like the hundreds of young men and women who come to Washington each year to pursue political careers, he was unsure of his sexual orientation when he began work eight years ago at age 22. “My political convictions were much better-defined than my sexual orientation,” he says. “I was drawn to conservative positions and didn’t realize that it would conflict with my personal life. It was only when I stopped thinking I was going through a stage and would eventually get married and the_children that I started to think about the relationship between my personal and professional life. “

Unlike St. Pierre, the gay aide concluded that he can make a difference by working on behalf of gay rights from the inside. “We’re going further than our constituency on some issues, like needle exchange,” he says. “But we can push the envelope only so far. Our district’s voters overwhelmingly oppose same-sex marriage. We were not ready to redefine an institution many people consider sacred. “

In response to the Oklahoma congressmen’s statements, Mark Agrast and Robert Raben, then-legislative aides to Massachusetts representatives Gerry Studds and Barney Frank, respectively, founded the Lesbian and Gay Congressional Staff Association. From its modest beginnings as a 15-member group, the organization reached a peak of 75 members before the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress helped cut its membership in half.

Raben says the group faces obstacles in attracting members who work for Republicans. “There is a perception out there that gay organizations are biased toward Democrats, which is not true in our case, because we are nonpartisan, ” he says. “We fight for the rights of all congressional employees. The other problem is that there is a higher percentage of homophobic offices on the Republican side of the aisle.”

Indeed, the majority of the group’s members work for liberal or moderate legislators who have supported gay rights. But Agrast, who now works for Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), says the closet does not heed partisan lines. “You know that gay people will encounter discrimination when the member is pursuing a political agenda at odds with the gay community,” he says. “But it is especially disappointing when people are afraid to be themselves in an environment in which the member has a reasonably positive voting record. I find that people in these positions tend to create their own worst-case scenarios.”

Kevin Mathis, a legislative assistant to a moderate Republican senator, says openness about his sexual orientation has worked to his advantage. “On a still level it is often useful to my position because the senator values different perspectives, and I bring a unique voice,” he says. “The senator needs to have contacts with different parts of the gay and AIDS community and to know how to balance all that.” (Following a long-standing office policy, Mathis agreed to be interviewed on the condition that the senator for whom he works not be identified.)

In some cases unacknowledged gay staffers can become a political liability to a candidate who has taken antigay positions, especially during a hotly contested electoral campaign. In former senator Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, for office, a steady stream of rumors about secretly gay staff members threatened to paralyze Dole’s political operation and contributed to his well-publicized waffling on gay issues.

Brian Bond, who worked for the Democratic National Committee during the campaign, says the Dole campaign was forced to fend off repeated press inquiries about the seeming contradiction between employing gay staffers and refusing to accept a donation from Log Cabin Republicans– a situation the Democrats watched with glee. (Dole later accepted the donation.) “At times Dole’s campaign was so busy fending off the rumors and explaining their position that they were neglecting their message, ” says Bond, who is now executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which works to elect openly gay candidates. “It gave his opponents on both sides ammunition to use against his campaign. “

That situation is likely to persist until sexual orientation is no longer a factor in congressional hiring practices. The aforementioned anonymous gay staffer, for instance, says that his former boss, who is now a member of the Senate, recently hinted that he would like him to return to his staff. “We had dinner a few months ago, and he told his press secretary afterward that it would be great to have me back, ” he says. ” Obviously, he still thinks I’m straight. I’m looking forward to the day when I can inform him that he has been operating on false assumptions.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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