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Pocan Op-Ed: The GOP’s Terribly Homophobic Week in Congress

May 24, 2016
In The News

Wisconsin Gazette

By Rep. Mark Pocan 

What a difference a decade has made for LGBT equality in Wisconsin. During a terribly homophobic week in Congress last month, I had to stop and remind myself of this point.

In 2006, Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly approved a same-sex marriage ban in the form of a constitutional amendment. Voting for the ban, according to exit polling, were a quarter of self-described liberals, a third of Democratic voters and a majority of moderates. It passed in 71 of 72 Wisconsin counties.

In 2016, one decade later, same-sex marriage is the law of the land.

This brings us to that bad week in May. The GOP Majority proceed to take not one or two, but three anti-equality actions. First, a bipartisan amendment I authored to restore honor and reinstate benefits for members of the military discharged based solely due to their sexual orientation was rejected to even be considered. Veterans who have risked their lives for our country should not be discriminated against and denied benefits based on their sexual orientation. That same week a bipartisan amendment to strip the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of anti-equality language that allowed federal contractors to discriminate in hiring practices against LGBT individuals was not allowed to come to a vote, despite promises by Speaker Paul Ryan that the House would abide by regular order.

The next day, a bill to nullify that discriminatory action secured enough votes to pass, but House GOP leadership refused to accept that outcome and held the vote open while they cajoled several lawmakers into changing their votes from yea to nay, which led to an understandable uproar on the House Floor, and in ultimate defeat of the amendment.

The GOP majority’s willingness to openly discriminate against the LGBT community across the country simply because of who we are is out of touch with the sentiment of the majority of Americans.  Public opinion has moved at a rapid pace towards equality and acceptance.

In 2011, half way through the past decade, we saw a switch to the majority of the public nationwide supporting gay marriage.  In 2012 in Wisconsin, we elected two openly gay members of Congress, with US Sen. Tammy Baldwin becoming the first openly gay senator. It was also the year I was elected to Congress.

And more progress was made when President Obama promised those of us in the congressional Equality Caucus that he would swiftly implement the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision, which he did while Congress stalled. We’ve also had progress on transgender rights, as we move toward requiring insurers and federal healthcare programs covering medical care related to gender transitioning.

I can also see the change in public opinion as I travel around my district, which is a diverse mix of rural, suburban and urban communities. In 2014, I went to a smaller rural high school to speak to students. As a member of the House Education Committee, I make it a priority to visit schools all around our Congressional District. During a Q&A period at this particular school, a teacher shared this story. Her class regularly debates current issues by putting up symbols of a donkey and an elephant, representing the two different political parties, on opposite sides of the classroom. Students go to stand on the side they agree with and want to argue on the topic.

One class period, the issue was gay marriage. As students moved toward their sides, something unprecedented happened – every single student went to the side aligned with “pro” marriage equality. An assistant teacher had stand on the opposite side of the classroom and debate as devil’s advocate. And this was a school nowhere near liberal Madison.

This Wisconsin class, standing united in support of marriage equality, took place less than ten years after the anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment had easily passed. I believe that those students would have also uniformly rejected the idea of permitting discrimination against LGBT individuals in hiring and in honoring their military service.

In 2006, just weeks after Wisconsin passed its constitutional ban, I traveled to Toronto, Canada to marry my husband. I told people then I would stay in Wisconsin and keep pushing for equality in the state where I grew up. Thank you for joining me in this cause. Every step forward is taken because people like you stand up, speak up and organize.

The bad, homophobic week in Congress is further proof, were any more needed, that we still have work to finish in our fight against LGBT discrimination. We must continue to fight to ensure that no one faces the threat of discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identify, in hiring or military service or anywhere in their daily lives. The past decade is proof that working together, we can make gigantic leaps forward.