Gay Legislators Change Gay Legislation

Gay marriage, civil union, domestic partnership: when does this annoying process end and when do the bachelorette parties begin?! Am I right?! No, really, am I?

Well, believe it or not, there is a shining light at the end of the tunnel of the many debacles and debates raging over gay partnerships in the United States-  and it’s gay legislators. According to the Washington Post, only 85 of the 7,382 legislators in America (you did not read wrong, that is only a bit over 1 percent) identify as gay or lesbian. But what they lack in numbers, they make up for in hard work and passion. So surprise! Even though gay legislators are a minority, they are a vocal and powerful one. Sound familiar?

photo via of the Gatto family.

According to WaPo, the importance of gay legislators (aside from the basic tenets of representation and visibility) in the marriage debates are twofold: “their speeches, often evoking personal themes, sometimes can sway wavering colleagues, and they can forge collegial relationships even with ideological foes through day-to-day professional and social interaction.” In other words, they can talk about their experiences and still be listened to and respected because of their position, and they can sway people  also on a more personal level. In Washington talk (trust me), this means they get paid to talk and go out for cocktails. This is good news for all of us. And chances are, it has been good news for you: most victories in the arena of partnerships have involved some of the few gay legislators in the U.S.

Here is a heartwarming example:

In Hawaii, where a civil unions bill was signed into law last month, one of the key players was House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, a gay Democrat.

Mr. Oshiro stood up in the closing minutes of the 2010 session to force a House vote on the measure, which was approved but vetoed in July by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. In September, Mr. Oshiro won a primary election over a former Honolulu councilman who strongly opposed civil unions, then beat a Republican in November — ensuring the bill would re-emerge this year with a supportive Democrat, NeilAbercrombie, taking over as governor.

For Mr. Oshiro, the key moment was deciding to make a personal plea to members of his Democratic caucus to overcome their doubts and agree to a vote on civil unions in April 2010.

“I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to really look in the mirror, knowing I had just let it fade,” he said. “Ultimately, the caucus supported bringing it to the floor, even if some of them didn’t support the bill.

“That was my one ‘ask,’” he said. “The governor vetoed it, but it really set the stage for this year.”

Hawaii and Illinois are now among seven states that allow civil unions or their equivalent — state-level marriage rights in virtually everything but name.

According to Chuck Wolfe, the Director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, gay legislators (or lawmakers) have impact even in red states. In Arkansas, a conservative state that has basically – on paper – no hope for gay-friendly policies in the short-term, Rep. Webb was able to change the discussion on gay adoption toward rejecting a proposal to ban the practice. She did this with her stories, and other gay legislators have the same opportunities to change minds. As Wolfe said, gay legislators are “people, not issues.” That is a remarkable thing, and it’s not to be undervalued: the power of hearing about an issue from a respected colleague, and not the hungry masses, makes a big difference.

So where do we go from here? If you have a gay representative, please make sure they are talking. If you don’t, please try to elect one. And if you are in law school, or want to go to law school, or really just think you’d look good in a suit – you would – in the middle of a courtroom or the Congress (or, don’t forget, the WHITE HOUSE), you should remember this Autostraddle article. Go forth and make change: this time, from the inside.

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. Yeah, Illinois had the tireless efforts of gay legislators Greg Harris and Deb Mel, as well as allies like Sara Feigenholtz. But I don’t believe civil unions would have gotten done without our gay legislators. Allies may be supportive but somebody has to drive.

    Not that civil unions are at all enough. We demand full equality. Like so:

  2. Something like 8 states have a marriage like institution called civil unions or registered partnerships. 5+DC have marriage equality

    re civil unons of these 5 are almost like marriage, but in practice raise all kinds of questions re rights, while “marriage” is a universally recognized institution.

    About 3 of the states are very very limited re rights, including maryland. Its not second class citizenship, its like 5th class citizens, or like blacks who were freed from slavery but lived under segregation, separate but of course very unequal etc.

    Maybe the country isn’t ready just yet to give gay people the same rights the great majority of us enjoy.

    But we should all be working to change that situation.

    As Corretta Scott King said re gay people: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther Kings Jr. dream to make room at the table fo brotherhood and sisterhood for gay and lesbian people”

    BTW which is in direct opposition to the outrageous statement on a black ministers shirt that called gays “worse then animals” at the MD legislature.

    Oh how soon we forget. And in such a horrible way in this case.

  3. And I should add – I worked and contributed to the campaign of 6 diffferent gay people all over the country.

    5 were elected. The country is almost completely ready to support our gay citizens as the good people they are.

    the only sticking point is marriage.

    Time America joined almost all of the westernized world. Instead of looking like a joke to our european friends who cant immagin why we havn’t given gay people equal rights under civil marriage laws.

    And if my former church cant change its ways, its time we all just shut off the money flow.

    BTW most of the leadership of the gay rights movement in the USA is catholic – real catholics. EG MD, ME, CA, WA state etc.

    They know what social justice is supposed to mean. too bad the church fathers seem to be asleep at the switch.

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