Presidential election season is a time to get to know current legislators and nominees and decide which ones deserve your votes, but it’s also a time to pay attention to the “rising stars” of the scene. The people currently running for seats in the House and Senate are the people who will be voting on the bills that govern our lives, and they often have designs on the White House; it’s a time to look around at governors and senators and hopefuls to see what lies in our future. Some of the faces that loom aren’t much to look forward to, like Chris Christie. But there are also some bright stars on the horizon. For instance: Tammy Baldwin, who seems poised to become the first openly gay person elected to the Senate.
This has been a strong year overall for queer politicians. Queer Latino/a politicians are taking the legislature by storm, and there’s an important increase in bisexual visibility in the legislature with Kyrsten Sinema and JoCasta Zamarripa. But the first gay US Senator is an even bigger deal – and it seems like this is within Baldwin’s reach. A series of polls are showing Baldwin pulling ahead of her opponent, former governor Tommy Thompson, in Wisconsin’s Senate race. Harvey Milk’s nephew has gone so far as to compare her to his groundbreaking uncle, saying that she’ll “break a glass ceiling that has existed for more than two centuries.”
Baldwin isn’t just making waves in the gay community; she’s been described as “populist,” which is a big deal in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker has become one of the most reviled public faces of union-busting. Here’s what Jezebel had to say about her back in April:
To understand how far Baldwin has come, it helps to know that she was raised in Madison by her grandparents, after her mother, who was just 19 when Tammy was born, could not care for her. Baldwin graduated from Smith College, and took an internship in then Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl’s administration. While there, she worked on an initiative to secure equal pay for women, and she told me that experience really stuck with her and taught her how important it was to legislate on behalf of women. She went on to law school, and then was elected to State Assembly in 1993. In 1998, she won her seat in the House of Representatives. At the time, she was a trailblazer because she was both the first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin and the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to the House.
So far, Tammy Baldwin has never let any obstacles stand in the way of achieving her goals. Which is perhaps why her opponent Thompson’s aide, named Brian Nemoir, felt threatened enough to tweet a passive-aggressive homophobic joke about her. Specifically, he linked to a video of Tammy Baldwin at a Pride parade in Madison, Wisconsin, next to Wonder Woman, with the catty comment that “Clearly, there’s no one better positioned to talk ‘heartland values’ than Tammy.”
It’s unclear exactly what part of the video Nemoir found disturbing – the fact that it’s a Pride parade? A woman not wearing full pants? The implausibility of invisible airplanes or truth lassos? Regardless, it seems clear that his low blow is an attempt to reframe the race between his boss and Baldwin as being about who’s more socially normative, and not whose policies are more attractive to voters. But while a Republican aide would imply that someone’s sexual orientation might negatively affect their job performance as an elected official is less than surprising, what happened next is actually a mild shock: Nemoir was reassigned to a different role in the campaign and been rebuked. Thompson was forced to announce that he considers Baldwin’s sexual orientation “a non-issue.”
It may not sound like much. But if you’ve been paying attention to Republican rhetoric over the past five or ten years – or even the last 12 months – it’s pretty astonishing to hear a Republican (especially one with a not-particularly-stellar record on the gays, like Thompson – as Jezebel says, “When he was running for President for a hot second in 2008, he actually said that he thought employers should be allowed to fire gays and lesbians based on their moral feelings about homosexuality.”) say that anyone’s sexuality is a “non-issue.” For perspective, it’s still okay for Mitt Romney to say “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate,” and no one will be “reassigned” because of it, nor did Mitt have to backpedal and explain that Obama’s race is “a non-issue.”
But in contrast to the totally backwards conversations that we will have on candidates’ race, gender, and religion, it’s now apparently at least a faux pas to denigrate an opponent based on their sexual orientation, and perhaps even a risky political move. It’s what’s making it possible for candidates like Richard Tisei, the openly gay Republican candidate for Congress in Massachusetts. Granted, Tisei’s brand of gay-friendly pro-choice Republicanism is probably more welcome in Massachusetts than in most of the rest of the country, but he’s still symbolic of a legislature where whatever other issues we argue about, we can agree that queer people are full humans whose sexual orientation doesn’t make them unfit to serve their countries or your community.