When gay Americans notched some of their biggest political victories in the last year for same-sex marriage and military service, opponents were already preparing an intense battle to roll back the new rights.
That onslaught, in state legislatures and Washington, has raised the stakes in the 2016 election for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, which is trying to leverage its unprecedented political power to elect lawmakers who would extend federal protections at work and home to gay citizens, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected race, religion and gender.
“It was easy to forget how big the challenge still is,” said Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the first openly gay congressman chosen by New Yorkers in 2012. “It’s more important than ever that we have people in elected office, that we have strong organizations in the community and that we continue to build alliances in the straight community.” The Republican majority in Congress is still hostile to these issues, he added.
The gay power base has never been stronger. Maloney is one of seven openly gay U.S. lawmakers — the most ever — and membership in the House LGBT Equality Caucus has surged 58 percent this session. There are about 500 LGBT politicians serving in elected office at all levels of U.S. government and almost 200 more running for office this year, including 11 for Congress, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports those candidates.
Now, according to Maloney, the biggest priority is electing more Democrats and gay politicians to win support for a sweeping federal law, the Equality Act, that would give LGBT residents in the U.S. the same civil protections afforded for race, age and religion.
“It’s very clearly shifted from an outside game to an inside game,” said Jeff Trammell, a Washington lobbyist, who has been active in political campaigns stretching back to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run. “We have definitely reached a tipping point within the Democratic party. Acceptance has changed so much faster than expected. We’re in bit of a sorting out process.”
Trammell, who was married to his longtime partner in 2013 by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, estimates that as many as 20 percent of his fellow fundraisers for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are members of the LGBT community. An increasing number of key campaign personnel, including the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, Andrew Tobias, are also openly gay.
It’s difficult to put a specific dollar amount on LGBT money in politics. But there is no question that the spending is much more visible than it was two decades ago, said Tobias, who has been DNC treasurer since 1999 and involved in fundraising since the early days of Bill Clinton’s campaigns for president.
“It’s hard to quantify, but it’s clear to me the LGBT community has been doing more than its pro-rata share over the years I’ve been treasurer – and for good reason,” Tobias said. “When it comes to equality, one party has been with us, and the other attempting to block us, every step of the way.”
Among the approximately 140 biggest donors who gave almost exclusively to Democrats in 2014, about 7 percent, or $13 million, came from 10 openly gay donors. More recent data isn’t available. At least six more LGBT donors rank among the so-called bundlers who raised $50,000 or more for Hillary Clinton in her current run.
In the past year, Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. have balked at funding the campaign of Republican Scott Garret, chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees capital markets, after news reports surfaced saying that he disparaged gay Republican congressional candidates in a closed door meeting. In the broader business community, almost 80 companies, from Abercrombie & Fitch Co. to Xerox Corp., support the Equality Act, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The bill has been stalled in Congress since last year.
Recent battles in Congress to prevent amendments that would limit gay rights in federal contracts demonstrate how much work is left to do, Maloney said in an interview. He was able to convince 43 Republicans to break with the party and oppose the amendment, but that still meant more than 200 were in favor of it, he said. The caucus is incensed that Republicans plan a hearing on July 12, the one-month anniversary of the murder of 49 patrons at a gay night club in Orlando, to discuss a bill that allows businesses to deny service to LGBT patrons if such service goes against religious values.
“The fight is far from over,” said Maloney, who is running for his third term in Congress. “This system is working for us, but it’s working for us because we worked. People made sacrifices and ran for office and gave money. LGBT people are demonstrating right now that the system can change and respond to the will of the voters.”
In the presidential race, the contrast is stark: Clinton, who is already endorsed by the largest gay advocacy group, has said she supports the Equality Act and would appoint a Supreme Court Justice who would protect gay rights. Republican Donald Trump has said he supports traditional marriage and would let states decide issues such as whether transgender people can use the restroom of their gender identity.
In promoting the law, the LGBT community faces stiff opposition from Republican lawmakers and advocacy groups, including Alliance Defending Freedom, which provides legal advice to businesses and groups that have religious and other objections to issues including abortion, birth control and LGBT rights.
“This bill does not guarantee equality, but eviscerates Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, religious exercise and association,” said Greg Scott, a spokesman for ADF. The Equality Act “effectively subordinates the First Amendment to popular opinion among the politically powerful.”
The Orlando shooting has also prompted LGBT groups to leverage their power for issues traditionally not part of their agenda. The Human Rights Campaign, for the first time, said June 17 that it would support gun control issues such as background checks, limiting access to assault-style rifles and limiting access to guns for suspected terrorists or people with a history of domestic violence. The group cited a link between hate crimes against LGBT people and easy access to guns.
The Human Rights Campaign was one of more than 80 gay advocacy and gun safety groups that signed a joint letter June 16 urging congress to ensure background checks for gun purchases and prevent suspected terrorists and those convicted of violent hate crimes from legally buying guns.
Since forming its first political action committee in January, the LGBT Equality Caucus has raised more than $100,000 that is supporting a dozen candidates so far, said Roddy Flynn, the executive director. The group now has 87 members of Congress among its membership, he said.
The rising visibility tracks with growing voter acceptance. In March, 63 percent of Americans said homosexuality should be accepted by society and only 28 percent said it should be discouraged, according to a March survey by the Pew Research Center. In that same survey, 55 percent of Americans favor allowing legal gay marriage and 37 percent were opposed, a reverse of the findings in 2001, Pew found.
In addition to the seven U.S. lawmakers, there are about 500 other LGBT elected officials across the country, more than at any time, according to Aisha Moodie-Mills, chief executive officer of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, which supports election of LGBT candidates in the U.S. The U.S. also has six gay ambassadors.
Transgender candidates won Democratic primaries in Colorado and Utah in June, marking the first time transgender candidates will be running for Congress with the backing of a major political party, according to advocacy group Freedom for All Americans.
There were only 41 openly gay elected officials in 1991 when the fund got started, compared to roughly 500 now. And five years ago the fund only found 75 candidates qualified for endorsement compared to more than 125 expected this election cycle, she said. (An estimated 3.5 percent of adults in the U.S. identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and an estimated 0.3 percent of adults are transgender, according to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute, which researches sexual orientation, gender identity law and public policy at the UCLA School of Law.)
The spate of laws this year across the South and Midwest seen as hostile to LGBT rights show the challenge ahead at the state and local level, Moodie-Mills said. At one point, more than 200 such bills were under discussion in more than 30 states. Business and public pressure may have killed legislation in Georgia and Missouri, but similar laws did pass in North Carolina and Mississippi, she said.
The fund is focusing on filling gaps in states where there are not currently LGBT lawmakers and adding to the ranks in the states with the fewest, she said. That includes so-called boot camps for potential future LGBT lawmakers, Moodie-Mills said.
Five years ago, there were 18 states without a gay lawmaker and that number has fallen to 9, now, Moodie-Mills said. In states where anti-LGBT legislation was introduced, 74 percent had either one or no LGBT lawmakers, according to Victory Fund research.
It’s a far cry from the late 1980s and even more recently, when it was still not uncommon for political candidates to either return money from LGBT sources or ask that the donations come late in the cycle so their opponents couldn’t use the contributions against them, said Joe Solmonese, who was president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT activist group, from 2005 to 2012.
“If you want to have political power, you have to be a powerful political player,” Solmonese said. “We’re spending money and writing checks with our heads and understanding the importance of unconventional allies.”