Our Candle in Congress

Running for her sixth term, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is still an equality pioneer as she talks about her newly-founded LGBT Equality Caucus and co-chairing Democratic Presidential Nominee Obama’s national gay leadership and policy committee.

Running for her sixth term*, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is still an equality pioneer as she talks about her newly-founded LGBT Equality Caucus and co-chairing Democratic Presidential Nominee Obama’s national gay leadership and policy committee.

OL: You’ve signed on to co-chair Barack Obama’s national gay leadership and policy committee. What is involved with that?

Tammy: I was co-chair of Hillary’s committee. Now I am Barack’s co-chair along with Tobias Wolff. Our duties are to do outreach and bring people onto the committee and into the campaign. Also, to educate about the stark difference between the Senator Obama and Senator McCain on issues of concern.

Senator Obama has such comfort in the LGBT community. He’s not stumbling over the language, where candidates in the past would. That’s refreshing. Fundamentally, he supports full equality. McCain usually avoids the topic.

Barack Obama supports the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. He supports repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He supports a comprehensive Employment Non-Discrimination Act at the national level and domestic partnership benefits for gay and lesbian federal employees.

Does Congresswoman Baldwin see a role for herself in an Obama administration? Vice President, perhaps?

(Chuckling) Not Vice President. I see myself as a key supporter in the Congress. He has pledged to offer a national health care plan. That’s been the issue that I’ve been so involved with and has brought me to public service in the first place.

What changes have you noticed in Congress’ view on lesbians and gays since you were first elected?

There’s been a lot. In my early days we were always fighting defensive battles. The Republicans were saying we have to define marriage in the federal constitution. When the Democrats took control of Congress two years ago, we no longer had defensive battles. For the first time, we started bringing matters to the floor that would advance LGBT equality. While President Bush won’t sign them, it’s provided preparation for when Senator Obama is in the White House. We brought the Matthew Shepard Act, adding sexual orientation, gender identity and expression as well gender and disability status to the national hate crimes laws. Then we brought the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It was not as comprehensive as many wanted, but advancing pro-equality legislation is a new day. We should celebrate that. We’ve had the first-ever hearings on transgender issues and employment discrimination. Recently we held a hearing on repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. One witness that the opposition called was so extreme that she almost did harm to their arguments. When we get back into session, we’ll have a hearing on one of my bills which provides domestic partnership benefits to federal employees.

What lead to creating the LGBT Equality Caucus?

We always had a sort of informal group who I could call into action when something was coming up. While under Republican rule and fighting defensive battles we wanted to make sure we had enough votes to defeat the federal marriage amendment. I got this group together and we would talk to all the members of Congress and count up how people were going to vote. Now that pro-equality legislation is advancing, we had to be sure we had sufficient votes to pass it. We knew it wasn’t as simple as saying, “Can you vote yes on this?” It was saying we were going to educate people on what it does and what controversies are likely to come up so they can really think through and confidently say, “I’m going to vote for it.” It became obvious that formalizing this group would be helpful, so we announced the creation of the LGBT Equality Caucus. Now we can formally convene to stratigize about how to divide the labor of educating our colleagues and counting votes. Now we have a vehicle for hosting briefings on Capital Hill. Those are distinct from committee hearings where you bring in guest speakers and usually both members and staff attend. We’ve had one on international LGBT human rights issues. As far as we’ve come, we have a long way to go. Even still, there are other places in the world where our leadership through our State Department could be very helpful in terms of saving lives and influencing policy abroad.

What is at stake in our Wisconsin election?

The control of the State Legislature. The previous Republican Senate and Assembly put our state constitutional amendment on the ballot in my mind for totally political reasons. They wanted to stir up the most conservative voters in the state. In November we can get rid of the remnants of that Legislature. We’ve already won the Senate back to Democratic control. The Senate would never dream of doing something as divisive as the constitutional amendment. Now, we are three votes short of winning the Assembly. If we do, I think we can see a very progressive agenda on a wide range of issues. I’m hopeful that our new Legislature in Democratic control would be able to repeal our antiquated law prohibiting couples from leaving the state to go to other states that have same-sex marriage rights. I also hope they consider domestic partnership benefits for state employees—something that is putting us at a competitive disadvantage. At the university setting we’re losing faculty. They’re not only taking their talent and intellect away, but also their grant dollars. One faculty member whose incredible research was funded by a multi-million dollar grant took it with him to a different university. Grants go with the researcher, not the institution. The money he took would have paid for the entire domestic partner benefits for all of the university employees in the state. It’s crazy that we’re not doing this.

Once legal equality has been established, what next?

Equality for transgender people will still be in front of us. Laws are only a part of our struggle. It’s important that we still quite simply come out. We’ve always found that people’s attitudes toward LGBT rights depends on whether they know and care about somebody who is LGBT.

What differences do you see in the gay youth today compared to when you were a student here?

It’s enormous. I came out fairly late, about mid-way through college. Late compared to the youth today. Partly because nobody ever uttered the words gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. At least from the respected role model. Our history and our part in shaping America has largely been an untold story. I think for many, if you feel different and don’t have a name for it, you don’t feel like there is anyone else like you. That’s changing with the establishment of GSAs and education for teachers about the importance of being inclusive in their curriculum. I’m not talking about sex education as much as I am saying, “This famous person in history happened to be a gay man. This scientist who made this important discovery happened to be a lesbian.” You can have a different sense of belonging if you can come out in a community that celebrates that.

And finally, who are a few of your heroes?

I look to pioneers from another generation who told me I could aspire to do what I was dreaming about doing but I thought I couldn’t because I was a lesbian. I think about Harvey Milk. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Frank Kameny. The early political leaders who decided not to be silent showed me a path. The first time I ever met Del and Phyllis was right when I was first elected to congress. The National Organization for Women held a lesbian rights summit. I was a speaker, and they were getting an award. I was so excited to tell them the influence and role they played in my pursuing this. But what was so shocking, or just breathtaking, was their reaction to meeting me. I’m standing here saying to them, “You’re my hero,” … And Phyllis says… “Del, Del, come over here Del…, This is what we’ve been working for our entire lives. This is what we’ve worked to achieve.”

You’re in that role for a lot of people now.

Yeah, and you forget that sometimes. You don’t necessarily see it, but then you get the letter from somebody whose struggling somewhere, and they write and say I learned about you, and now I know I can do something.

*Editor’s Note: In 2008, Tammy defeated Peter Theron 69%-31% and in 2010 she won a seventh term with 62% of the vote against Chad Lee. Baldwin defeated her Republican opponent, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, in the 2012 U.S. Senate election.