THE BLOG

Is Being Gay or Bi Enough? The Rise of the Queer ConservaDems

10/04/2013 12:10 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is one of nine Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives who voted to shut down the government. She also is the first openly bisexual member of Congress, elected for the first time in 2012. She was backed by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the Human Rights Campaign and other gay and progressive groups and was touted during the campaign to progressive and LGBT donors as a progressive Democrat. She ran as a pro-equality candidate who cared about the poor and working people, often telling her own story of her family's economic troubles.

But how is voting to shut down the government, and voting to end affordable health care before it even begins, a vote for workers and the poor?  (And make no mistake: The GOP effort to delay the mandate, for which Sinema voted, was all about sinking Obamacare.) How is that a vote for equality and a vote for LGBT Americans and people with HIV who are terribly affected by both a shutdown and any attempt to hurt the Affordable Care Act?

Since taking office, Sinema has voted with the GOP against economic justice issues that progressives, including LGBT activists, view as crucial. Both she and U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), an openly gay former Clinton aide, also elected for the first time in 2012, have voted with big banks and Wall Street time and again. Right out of the gate, Maloney, who took a lot of Wall Street money, voted with the GOP on the debt ceiling early this year, and actually co-sponsored a bill that would roll back reforms of the very Wall Street practices that led to the economic collapse. He even voted with the GOP to take authority over the Keystone XL project from the president. Like Sinema, he also voted to jeopardize Obamacare or shut down the government. And he too was supported in his election campaign by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, and other gay and progressive groups, touted as a progressive.

Think about this: On what is arguably the most important debate in Congress, two of nine Democrats who voted with the tea party-led blackmailers are openly gay or bisexual. Two of only five openly gay or bisexual members of the House voted with the extreme far right to undermine the president. Veteran recording industry executive Howie Klein, the founder of the progressive Blue America PAC and an openly gay man himself, has been criticizing both of them for their votes for months. He told me that Sinema had been calling him throughout last year's campaign, looking for money. He'd known her and liked her, having served with her on the board of People for the American Way, but he told me that when he had her fully vetted, he was "horrified" by her record. Blue America is now actively recruiting a candidate to run in the Democratic primary against Sinema.

Some say it's better to have Democrats like Sinema and Maloney than to possibly have a Republican in the seat. If it means they have to vote with the GOP, especially if the vote isn't pivotal, then so be it, the thinking goes. But that breeds the most cynical kind of politics and drives people away from participating when we need to bring them in. It only furthers the disgust with Washington. It's dishonest too, as these candidates are promoted as progressives and sold as such to LGBT and progressive donors, disingenuously using their queerness during Democratic primaries as a way to give them street cred with progressives while their records and intentions are otherwise. (And they're continuing to do it: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is hosting an "Equality Reception" next week in D.C. for them, once again using their being gay or bi to raise money.) President Obama comfortably won both Sinema's and Maloney's swing districts in 2012, and a real progressive could win them as well.

I had an odd encounter with Sinema when I interviewed her last fall on my radio program during her tight race against a tea party-backed Republican. She deflected each time I brought up her sexual orientation -- on an LGBT radio channel, speaking to an LGBT audience. Sinema once headed a group that successfully fought an anti-gay marriage amendment in Arizona. But during our interview she said that it doesn't make "much of a difference" to have an openly bisexual person in Congress. (Listen to the audio clip below.)

It became even stranger when I asked Sinema about her coming out publicly as bisexual back when she was an Arizona legislator in 2005, which was widely reported on. She'd responded to an anti-gay legislator's rant on the floor of the Arizona legislature by later telling reporters who asked, "Duh, I'm bisexual."

"I gotta be honest," she answered in the interview with me last September, after a short pause. (Listen to the audio clip below.) "I'm not sure I remember it."

Really? She forgot about the time she came out? Interestingly, Sinema apparently did remember it quite clearly just a few months earlier, during the Democratic primary race, while courting progressive support, well before the right was attacking her in the general election. Speaking with The Daily Beast in May, she apparently recited her coming-out story -- complete with the "duh, I'm bisexual" line -- quite vividly to a reporter.

"She's a smart woman," says Howie Klein. "She's not a moron. But she's more interested in promoting her own career than promoting progressive ideals and principles."

Klein believes it's healthy to debate whether or not it's enough today for a candidate to simply be gay, lesbian, bi or trans, and I agree. The quicker that progressives learn that just being LGBT doesn't make someone progressive, the better. And the quicker that LGBT people (donors and voters) realize that just because a candidate is LGBT, it doesn't mean that he or she is looking out for many interests that are important to us, the better. As with the rejection by LGBT voters of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in the city's Democratic mayoral primary -- and the dismissal of simplistic identity politics --  it's a maturing of the LGBT electorate.