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Keith Durbin seems to have what it takes to be a successful elected official. He’s intelligent, experienced, well-educated, and involved in his community.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he’s handsome. He’s also gay. Come August, he should be elected as the first openly gay official in the state of Tennessee, according to the Victory Fund, which is supporting his candidacy.


After serving his neighborhood for five terms as President of Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors, Inc, Durbin is running unopposed for the Nashville City Council. The fact that he is unopposed virtually assures his election, but the respect he has earned in his community provides him a good chance at victory, even if he had an opponent. 


Durbin may not be the only gay man elected to the council, however. Shane Burkett is also running, and like Durbin, he has the education and experience needed to be an effective councilperson. However, Burkett faces more of an uphill battle in his campaign, as he is attempting to unseat incumbent Jim Gotto. Both Durbin and Burkett are in long-term relationships, but their personal relationships are not seen as a hindrance to their campaigns, nor are the candidacies viewed as an attempt to promote a gay agenda. (For more information on Durbin and Burkett, visit their websites: KeithDurbin.com and ShaneBurkett.com.) 


Homosexual issues have certainly been on the forefront in politics in the last few years.  Same-sex marriage, gays in the military, homosexuals’ right to adoption, domestic partner benefits, fairness ordinances and laws—all of these issues have been subjected to considerable debate, with fervent supporters and opponents squaring off for heated argument in forums ranging from the US Congress to talk shows to classrooms. When the issue in question progresses to the point of legislation, whether it supports gay rights (such as current proposed legislation to provide domestic partner benefits to government employees) or opposes (the Defense of Marriage Act), the supporters of the legislation are almost always straight.


That’s because gay representation in politics is lacking. From 1999 to 2007, only three openly gay individuals served in the House of Representatives, two Democrats (Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin) and one Republican (Jim Kolbe, who served for 11 years before coming out in 1996). With Kolbe’s defeat last year, that number was reduced to two. There are not now nor have there ever been any openly gay Senators, Governors, or Secretaries in the Presidents’ cabinets. Within the Bush Administration, the homosexual with the highest ranking is Dr. Mark R. Dybul, who heads the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator in the State Department and holds the rank equivalent to Ambassador. 


Tammy Baldwin

Tammy Baldwin


On the state and local level, gay and lesbians have gained more of a foothold. Many see the recent defeat of openly gay Ed Oakley in the Dallas mayoral race as a setback, but this view is shortsighted. After all, this is a city where two men were given light sentences for committing murder two decades ago because the victims were gay. That a gay man could be in a run-off for the city’s top elected office is indeed progress. And his defeat isn’t necessarily a slap at homosexuals—Dallas has a gay constable and councilman and a lesbian sheriff.


Other cities have been open to gay officials, as well. Such cities as Palm Springs, Providence, North Miami, and Cambridge have elected gay mayors, and Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Houston, Seattle, and Minneapolis are just a few of the cities who have homosexual council members. Gay men and lesbians have served in a variety of citywide posts, including Treasurer, School Board member, Manager of Public Utilities, and Commissioner.


On the state level, countless Representatives and Senators have served or are in office currently, and gay / lesbian individuals have been elected or appointed Director of the State Housing Authority in Maine, Director of the State Department of Insurance in Ohio, Commissioner of Massachusetts’s State Department of Public Health, Chairperson of Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission, and First Deputy Secretary to the Governor of New York.


According to the Victory Fund, 2006 saw 67 openly gay individuals elected to federal, state, and local office: a record number. The significance of this is three-fold: first, it shows an increased acceptance of homosexual candidates, meaning that candidates are more frequently being judged on their abilities rather than their sexual orientation; second, it shows a greater willingness on the part of open homosexuals to run for office; and finally, it allows the GLBT community a voice in their government. Less and less, GLBT individuals will have to rely on open-minded straight officials to fight their battles.       


Finally, that diabolical “homosexual agenda” will be adopted and forced down the throats of God-fearing, patriotic Americans, and homosexuals will rule the land! Hardly. For one thing, many gay and lesbian Americans are God-fearing and / or patriotic. Furthermore, most gay and lesbian elected officials are a little smarter than to adopt a legislative agenda that only serves a gay constituency. According to “Minority Group Interests and Political Representation: Gay Elected Officials in the Policy Process”, published in the Journal of Politics, the election of gay and lesbian officials will indeed make it easier to pass pro-rights legislation for the GLBT community. However, the article goes on to conclude “that election of gay officials is not simply a symbolic action, as they evidently represent the interests of their community. In some policy arenas, this substantive political representation may make the difference between policy adoption or failure, but in others, gay officials are one political influence among many.” (Haider-Markel, Donald P.; Joslyn, Mark R.; Kniss, Chad J.; May 2000)


The most important aspect of this statement is the phrase “represent the interests of their community”. Even if elected to represent the heavily gay community of the Castro in San Francisco, a councilperson would have to realize that there were straight people in his / her constituency. In fact, “gay meccas”, areas with high homosexual populations and therefore more likely to elect a gay representative, tend to be more diverse neighborhoods, meaning that a singular focus for an elected official would ignore the needs of the many groups which he / she serves. Gay and lesbian representatives don’t have the luxury of being singularly-minded in the manner of a politician who serves at the pleasure of a homogeneous population. Because of their sexual orientation, these officials are more likely to find such a singular focus subject to attack by opponents who will argue that they are destroying “traditional American values” by promoting that dreaded homosexual agenda.


Even without a focus on GLBT issues, gay politicians are subject to such attacks. The Pilgrims Covenant Church, located in Tammy Baldwin’s home district, had this to say about their congressional representative: “The Tammy Baldwin you will meet today will appear kind and winsome with an appealing personality… The truth is, Tammy Baldwin’s actions reveal her to be a person in rebellion to God and bent on promoting a wicked, even brutal, agenda.” The church goes on to call Baldwin “a champion of the radical homosexual political agenda”, “a socialist”, “an enemy of the First and Second Amendments”, and “a sexual deviant”, further asserting that Baldwin is an enemy of the unborn, elderly, and the affirm. (“The Real Tammy Baldwin”)


Such assertions are problematic because they ignore the work that Baldwin has actually done in the House of Representatives. In the past year, Baldwin has sponsored or co-sponsored legislation allowing farmers greater flexibility in crop selection, improving veterinary medicine education and increasing the veterinary workforce, enhancing public health initiatives on the state level, and increasing funds for paralysis research. Baldwin is also known for her work strengthening civil rights and improving energy independence. 


Barney Frank

Barney Frank


Furthermore, the Journal of Politics article notes another important point, one that Baldwin no doubt recognizes: gay officials are just one voice in a larger political process. In order to have success in promoting issues that benefit a gay constituency, politicians will have to be knowledgeable on a variety of subjects and willing to fight for the causes of other demographic groups in order to gain support for theirs. Such is the nature of politics; victories are won through coalition, requiring the cooperation of other political factions.


Examining the voting records of Representatives Frank and Baldwin demonstrates this idea. In the past year, Frank has sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to provide for solvency of the federal flood insurance program and increase the mortgage amount limits applicable to FHA mortgage insurance for multifamily housing high-cost areas, and is Chairman of the influential Financial Services Committee. 


However, this is not to imply that gay politicians’ interests in non-gay issues are superficial, that they play the game merely to get the gay legislation they want adopted. These are multifaceted individuals with concerns covering a wide range of interests. To say that gay officials only care about gay issues is as absurd as saying that black officials only care about black issues or Jewish officials only care about the state of Israel. When asked what his “gay agenda” was, Providence mayor David Cicilline replied, “… government reform, improving neighborhoods, and strengthening schools.” Cicilline went on to note that his candidacy was “a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that gay people have the same dreams and desires as other citizens.” (qtd. in “Leading Providence”, The Advocate, 24 Dec 2002)


Serving their country in elected office is one of those dreams for many gay men and women, and the odds are that we will see more of them become successful in fulfilling that dream. A recent study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA, reported by ABC News, indicates that the GLBT community is likely to flex its muscles at the voting booth with more frequency. The study notes that the number of same-sex households jumped from around 600,000 to nearly 777,000 in the last five years, a rate of growth five times that of the general population. Researcher Gary Gates concludes that out couples are more likely to be politically active and could be the deciding factor in close elections. (Cochran, John, “Gay Power in the Election?” ABCNews.com 11 October 2006)


The cause for this increase is steeped in irony. Having successfully defeated gay marriage initiatives and other gay-friendly ballot measures across the country, conservative forces could have mobilized once closeted homosexuals, as well as out but politically inactive gays, according to Williams Institute Director M. V. Lee Badgett. Badgett states that these defeats have not driven “gay men, and lesbians and bisexual people back into anonymity and silence… the campaign against gay rights may have the opposite effect.”


With more gay, lesbian, and gay-friendly voters going to the polls, homosexual candidates stand a greater chance of being elected. As is often the case, candidates elected on a local level become more prepared for state and national campaigns. They also gain name recognition, and if they do a good job locally, they gain the respect of voters who can propel them up the political ladder. Today’s gay mayors and councilpersons could become tomorrow’s gay senators and representatives.


I have no delusions that there will be an openly gay president during my lifetime (there seems to be some question concerning bachelor President James Buchanan, who lived for many years with William Rufus de Vane King, Franklin Pierce’s VP). Still, I do hope that there will come a day soon when enough GLBT individuals will serve in office that no viable presidential candidate would dare include anti-gay rhetoric or fear-mongering about homosexuality in his or her campaign. Ultimately, though, the election of gay and lesbian officials isn’t about stacking our legislative bodies with GLBT individuals so that the gay community can get its way: it’s about electing the most qualified individuals to serve, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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