On July 12, 1996, I cast the worst vote of my political career. Having served in public office since 1973, that says something. While I've made other mistakes, this was different: it was a deliberate vote that I knew to be poor public policy and was against my values. I've been a strong champion of civil rights and protections based on sexual orientation since I chaired the first legislative hearing on anti-discrimination legislation in 1973. Even worse, this vote was cast after careful consideration.
Having given it much thought, I was convinced that by voting for this one federal statute against the recognition of same-sex marriage, it would somehow take the steam out of the Newt Gingrich-Tom Delay Congress, which was using the homophobic right-wing agenda to mobilize their base at the expense of millions of gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual Americans. My hope was to simply move on and get to more pressing business at hand, including smaller steps for equality based on sexual orientation, like legislation against employment discrimination.
Since I was an outspoken supporter of anti-discrimination, I assumed that my calculations would be understood by my friends in the community and that we would lay this obnoxious political vendetta to rest. Wrong on all counts.
It should have been obvious to me that we would not be able to quell this assault based on sexual orientation. Far from stopping it, this vote fed the bigotry. Once Congress had put its imprimatur on DOMA, it was a logical step for the homophobes and political cynics to intensify their efforts and make permanent a ban on gay marriage in both the U.S. and state constitutions -- spawning many state initiatives and intensifying the assault.
As for the expectation that my friends, allies, and supporters within the community would understand my vote, that too was fundamentally flawed. Friends gay and straight were perplexed, confused, and hurt. Logical political calculation -- after all, I'm the "political expert" -- made no sense. First of all, I was fundamentally wrong about how the politics would play out, but it was also flawed on a more basic level. Here I was making political calculations on the basis of other people's civil rights and identity as human beings.
The ultimate arrogance in this -- even had my calculations turned out right (which they weren't) -- was just wrong. The good news is that out of this painful episode for me and our country, much progress has occurred. The right-wing's march to define "traditional marriage" has stalled and created its own backlash. The broader community was subjected to their vitriol and mean-spiritedness, and tides started to move the other way.
It's been a non-issue for those under 35, but now more and more Americans support marriage for all. The issue that was not on the radar screen for the GLBT community is now at the top of the list. Rather than having states prohibit same-sex marriage, now -- starting with Massachusetts -- we have states like Iowa moving the other way. Many other states are moving aggressively with domestic partnerships, and it is merely a matter of time before all citizens are accorded the right to marry their partner and be accorded the legal protections and ceremony currently granted only to heterosexual couples.
The politics are also working in the other direction, the most interesting example being the defeat of Marilyn Musgrave, the champion of a federal constitutional amendment that would have prohibited same-sex marriage.
The debate has energized other aspects of the civil rights agenda: from hate crimes and employment practices to immigration and family law. There is growing momentum to repeal the odious and destructive "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that has actually weakened our military, denying it services of outstanding men and women while at the same time infringing on the rights of thousands of soldiers based on their sexual orientation.
Now there is the opportunity to deal with DOMA itself. This week, Congressman Nadler has introduced legislation to repeal it, and I am proud to be a co-sponsor.
I long ago recognized and acknowledged the mistake I made, and I have spent time understanding the problems in my thinking and analysis. It has resulted in frank and important conversations with many gay and lesbian friends, and if anything it has strengthened my commitment to the cause of banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and has made me a better lawmaker.
I will work to make sure that my colleagues who once, for whatever reason, joined me in supporting this ill-advised measure take this opportunity to correct their record and eliminate an injustice.
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