Can America’s First Openly Gay Senator Blaze a New Trail?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the first openly gay U.S. senator is much more than a history-making figure.
By Sean Braswell
On the floor of the Democratic convention in San Francisco it was near bedlam. Women danced in the aisles, tears in their eyes, strangers embraced and cigars stamped “It’s a Girl” were joyfully handed out to chants of “Ger-ry, Ger-ry!” And then the woman of the hour approached the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen of the convention, my name is Geraldine Ferraro,” she began to deafening applause.
For one recent college grad watching the first woman accept a major party nomination for U.S. vice president on a small black-and-white television set in 1984, it was a formative moment. “I remember watching the Democratic convention and [Ferraro] giving her speech and thinking to myself, I can aspire to anything. There’s no limits anymore,” Tammy Baldwin told The Advocate, which named her the magazine’s Person of the Year in 2012 after she herself made history, becoming the first openly gay leader elected to the U.S. Senate. And now, Baldwin is helping others to realize there are no limits. “I think the most striking effect of Senator Baldwin’s election,” says Aisha C. Moodie-Mills, the president and CEO of the Victory Fund and Institute, “is that LGBT candidates are reaching higher than ever before.”
Baldwin’s sexual orientation … was rarely an issue in her campaign.
And with the gay rights movement continuing to gain greater traction in the U.S. — where another woman’s name will likely be placed into nomination at a Democratic convention this July — Baldwin now finds herself out on the front end of what could be another watershed period for the American left.
Baldwin’s sexual orientation may have made her 2012 Senate victory historic, but it was rarely an issue in her campaign — in which the seven-term Wisconsin congresswoman bested Tommy Thompson, a former governor and GOP establishment fixture. And for Baldwin, 54, it was just the latest in a series of barriers and glass ceilings she has left shattered behind her path. The Madison native, who has degrees from Smith College and University of Wisconsin-Madison, served for three terms in the state assembly before becoming, in 1998, the state’s first female member of Congress — not to mention the first openly gay nonincumbent ever elected to the U.S. House.
Baldwin does not have the personality you might expect of a trailblazer, or a seasoned politician. Her easygoing, calm manner once prompted fellow senator Al Franken to call her ‘‘the most serene member’’ of Congress. “Even my hobbies are boring,” Baldwin once admitted to The New York Times. “I sew. I like to cook.”
What does get her riled up, then? “Obstacles to progress” — something she has experienced firsthand. Raised primarily by her grandparents, Baldwin was hospitalized for three months with a serious illness similar to spinal meningitis when she was just 9 years old. She recovered but would be tarred with the “preexisting condition” label, making it impossible for her to get health insurance until she was in college. Naturally, she has been one of the Affordable Care Act’s biggest champions in Congress, where she has also worked to combat other obstacles to progress, including the student debt crisis.
Just voted for the Keep Student Loans Affrdble Act – to cap intrst rates & keep higher edu affordable for #WI students & their families. –TB
— Sen. Tammy Baldwin (@SenatorBaldwin) July 10, 2013
Unsurprisingly, she has also long been an outspoken champion of LGBT rights, proposing a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Wisconsin way back in 1994. And though she supports Hillary Clinton today, in 1993 she told The Milwaukee Journal that president Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was “a concession to bigotry.” Since coming to Congress, she has also led efforts to pass hate crimes legislation and extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
But perhaps her biggest impact on the LGBT community has been inspiring others to follow her and seek political office. “It is hard to make the commitment to run for office if you do not see yourself reflected in who is serving,” says Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and “her breaking that ceiling made every LGBT person believe that we were maybe finally past the time where our sexual orientation would be a liability.” Moodie-Mills says she sees more LGBT candidates than ever this year running for statewide and federal offices, including at least 25 candidates for Congress at last count.
To be sure, part of holding major political office means generating friction, and Baldwin’s congressional tenure has not been without its challenges and controversy. Last year, Wisconsin Republicans filed a Senate ethics complaint alleging Baldwin offered severance pay to a former aide not to talk about her office’s allegedly slow response to reports of narcotics being overprescribed at a Wisconsin veterans affairs facility. The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint, which Baldwin’s office has repeatedly denied as frivolous. Another looming challenge: Baldwin’s historic election, which benefited from strong Democratic turnout in 2012, will be put to the test in the 2018 midterms, when turnout is not likely to be as strong.
Whatever the challenges of being a senator or a trailblazer, sometimes just being in the room is enough to change the tone and tenor of a legislature. “What’s happening in Mississippi and Tennessee (where there are no openly LGBT state legislators),” says Kendell, “are perfect examples of how effortless it is to pass homophobic laws when no one from our community is in the room as a peer.” Such laws are much more difficult to pass, she says, “when your colleague is sitting just across the aisle.”
Ferraro would have undoubtedly agreed. “If you’re not in the room, the conversation is about you,” Baldwin told The Advocate. “If you’re in the room, the conversation is with you, and that makes a huge and transformative difference.”