The Untouchables

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan relates a story that highlights just how much progress the LGBTQ community has made in so little time—and the fight that remains.

As we come together for Pride, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the diversity within the LGBTQ community; reflect upon the struggles and achievements we’ve experienced in the fight for equality; and resolve to continue working to ensure that everyone can live openly and freely.

Over the last several years, we have made remarkable progress in the fight for equality—from repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” to achieving full marriage equality across the country. These changes are the result of decades of efforts by members of the LGBTQ community, and it’s important to reflect on just how far we’ve come.

One story to this point, for example, is from 1995, when I was serving on the Dane County Board of Supervisors along with Scott McCormick, another openly gay elected official, and Tammy Baldwin had just recently been elected to the state legislature. In May of that year, the White House invited the three of us to Washington as part of a group of LGBT elected officials to mark Pride Month and meet with Administration officials.

When we arrived at the White House ahead of our scheduled meetings for a tour, there was a long wait where we spent 15 to 20 minutes outside passing the time. As the Secret Service let us into the building for the security screening, all the agents were wearing bright blue gloves, which we assumed were due to the heightened radiation that they must be using during the screening process. When we started the briefing inside, we learned that the security guards were wearing the blue gloves because they thought they would get AIDS by coming into contact with gays and lesbians.

The White House immediately felt embarrassed by their actions and during a reception that evening, Vice President Al Gore stopped by the event and made a point to shake every person’s hand so that we would know that it wasn’t the position of the Administration and that it was just the security staff at the time. Several weeks later, I received a letter from the White House signed by President Bill Clinton that said, “Thank you for coming to the White House…I want to apologize for the inappropriate and insensitive treatment several of the participants were subjected to at the entrance gate of the White House. It was wrong.”

Though President Clinton made it clear that we as LGBTQ Americans were welcome to visit the White House, it is important to note that in both the original invitation and the apology letter, the words “gay” and “lesbian” were not included. Just 25 years ago, we were still at a time when the White House would not mention these terms in official correspondence and people still had a great deal of ignorance about the LGBTQ community and HIV/AIDS.

Today, the White House’s invitation and apology letter—along with a pair of blue gloves that look just like those that officials wore in 1995—hang framed in my Washington office. The gloves serve as a reminder of the discrimination and challenges LGBTQ Americans faced in the not-too-distant past, as well as an encouragement to fight for a better future.

When I visited the White House in 1995—a year after the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and a year before the signing of the Defense of Marriage Act—I would have never imagined that we would be where we are today. In just 20 years, we went from Americans wearing gloves because they thought they would get HIV and AIDS from casual contact with LGBTQ Americans to the White House being lit in the colors of the pride flag to celebrate marriage equality.

Today, the LGBTQ community is on the cusp of achieving full equality and we cannot take our eyes off the future. Just last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on—for the first time—the Equality Act, which would explicitly bar discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity for every American. No matter who you are or whom you love, you should have the right to live your full life openly and authentically, and until that happens, we will continue the fight for full equality.

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