I yearn for the day when being an LGBT American is no more remarkable than being an Irish American. We would still be a definable group with an interesting and sometimes bitter history. We might even continue to hold parades every June. But the days of obsessing about politics would be long gone, because we would finally be equal. Obviously, we’re not there yet. Even more worrisome is the fact that we’re stuck in a trap that threatens to keep us from ever reaching that sweet day.
I call it the glamour trap. It’s a beguiling snare, consisting of the idea that we must focus on the glamorous world of national politics, while relegating state affairs to stepchild status. The evidence of our enchantment is obvious.
The largest and most prominent LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, focuses primarily on national legislation and presidential and Congressional politics. The resources that pour into HRC dwarf anything that trickles into state groups. For example, HRC raised $28 million in 2003 to buy and renovate a building in Washington D.C. Three years later, 46 LGBT groups seeking operating funds in 39 states couldn’t even raise as much as HRC did for that one building. The budgets of the state organizations totaled only $26 million, according to the Equality Federation’s 2007 State of the States report.
HRC took in $42 million in revenue and support in its most recently completed fiscal year and boasts of more than 150 paid staff members. State groups average a mere four paid employees per organization; some can’t afford to hire anyone.
Why does this matter? Let me count the ways.
First, let’s be real. Politicians don’t sprout full-grown from inside the Beltway. The path to Congress, or the White House, often begins at a state legislature, a city council, or even a school board. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the only out lesbian in Congress, launched her political life on the Dane County Board of Supervisors in Wisconsin. The only out gay Congressman and committee chair, Barney Frank, began his elected career in the House of Representatives in Massachusetts.
Congressional allies Sen. Barack Obama, Rep. Henry Waxman, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich started, respectively, in the Illinois Senate, California State Assembly, and Cleveland City Council. Anti-LGBT politicos like former Rep. Tom DeLay and Federal Marriage Amendment sponsor Rep. Marilyn Musgrave started their careers in the House of Representatives in Texas and the Morgan County School Board in Colorado.
Imagine what our lives would be like if pro-LGBT candidates always won local elections and the likes of DeLay and Musgrave couldn’t even get onto a school board.
During the last frightful decade, we saw that state politics can also be the life or death of equal rights. In that time, LGBT Americans have battled against bans on marriage equality in 27 states. We’ve only won once. States also have jurisdiction over family law. Adoption, inheritance rights, and hospital visitation are just a few of the issues that can only be won — or lost — in the states.
And then there’s the problem of the U.S. Constitution. The founders played a nasty trick on city folk. Largely because of the institution of the U.S. Senate, the Constitution gives rural Americans disproportionate power in deciding national issues.
The 4.7 million people of Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska get 10 votes in the Senate, while the 36.5 million people of California have a mere two votes. Wyoming is represented by two senators, even though its 515,000 souls number far fewer than the average population of a Congressional district in any other state. If population size were the only factor in determining representation, Wyoming wouldn’t even qualify for one vote in Congress.
In an age when filibusters rule and nothing passes the Senate without 60 votes, LGBT Americans may win few Congressional victories without first electing equality minded politicians in rural states.
This is not an attack on HRC. Although I’ve disagreed with HRC at times, I’ve seen the group do important work. HRC has also provided an increasing amount of funding and other support for state organizations. Its leaders are among the savviest activists in the nation. And yes, I’m biased. Among the many people I know at HRC are President Joe Solmonese. We met in 1994 when we worked on a campaign together, and I’ve admired him ever since. If the disasters of the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell” have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t ignore Congress.
This isn’t about good guys vs. bad guys. We must find a balance between our state and national efforts. If we don’t, our vision of a sweet future will never be more than a dream.
Diane Silver is guest writing the syndicated column, Lesbian Notions this month. She helped found the Kansas Equality Coalition and blogs at www.hopeandpolitics.blogspot.com.