Losing the LGBT Community's Legislative Hero

capitol dome with full moon  ...
capitol dome with full moon ...

The same year Richard Nixon left Washington in disgrace, the man who would become one of the LGBT community's most respected heroes was moving to D.C. That's when 34-year-old Henry Waxman was sworn in as the congressman representing parts of Los Angeles County, including West Hollywood.

Forty years later, and now just weeks from retirement, Congressman Waxman -- Vice Chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus -- is leaving the halls of the U.S. Capital having helped to save the lives of thousands of people with HIV and to make the entire country a much better place for LGBT people.

If you're old enough to have watched original airings of The Brady Bunch, you're likely to remember orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant and her highly publicized "Save our Children" campaign to repeal a Dade County, Florida ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

What you probably don't remember -- or never knew -- is that two years earlier, a fearless and very junior Congressman Waxman introduced the Civil Rights Amendment of 1975, a bill that would have outlawed sexual orientation-based discrimination throughout the country. That was just the beginning of his work for the LGBT community, which includes co-authoring and introducing numerous bills to advance LGBT equality.

Waxman's most important accomplishment, however, may be his work on behalf of people living with HIV. While Reagan and his administration were shamefully ignoring AIDS (our president never even uttered the word AIDS until years into the epidemic) and health officials were slow to respond, Waxman used the power of his office to force action. To investigate the epidemic and the government's anemic response, and to squeeze money from the federal coffers for research, treatment and prevention, he held the first Congressional hearing on the AIDS crisis in 1982. And to bring as much attention to it as possible, he moved the hearing from the Capital to the headquarters of the gay organization that had treated some of the first Americans infected, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center (now known as the Los Angeles LGBT Center).

Because he never believed that the Department of Health and Human Services was doing everything it could to fight AIDS, Waxman did what few members of Congress seem interested in doing these days; he educated himself on the issue. Through personal briefings from scientists, doctors and health officials he became an expert on AIDS and chaired hearing after hearing to bring attention to the growing epidemic while successfully advancing legislation to fund research, public education initiatives and health care delivery.

"There's no doubt in my mind," Waxman said at the time, "that if the same disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent, or among tennis players, rather than among gay males, the responses of the government and the medical community would have been different."

So while some members of Congress talked about quarantining people with HIV and creating registries of gay men, Waxman wrote (as lead author), and shrewdly secured the votes to pass, what became his crowning achievement in the fight against AIDS: the landmark Ryan White CARE Act. Since 1990 it has funded health and support services that have helped to care for hundreds of thousands of uninsured people living with HIV.

A former chief of staff for Waxman, Timothy Westmoreland, recounts in a story for Politico how the congressman responded when a reporter asked him whether he worked to fight AIDS just because he represented homosexuals. After a short pause, Waxman said "No, but would it be so wrong if that were true? You don't question why members from Pennsylvania represent steel workers. But actually I work on this issue because it's the largest public health crisis of our time, and I chair the subcommittee on health. Also, I work on this issue because I am a Jew, and I understand what it means if your society doesn't care if you live or die."

Of course, Waxman has served our country and California's 33rd Congressional District by doing much more than fighting for LGBT equality and people with HIV. He's been one of Congress' strongest advocates to protect the environment, to improve food safety, to battle "big tobacco," and to pass the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the list of progressive issues he has championed would probably be longer than the Defense Authorization bill. But if you're an LGBT person, or person living with HIV, it's his leadership to make our government work for you, that you may remember most about his four decades of service.

Please join the Los Angeles LGBT Center in sending thanks to Congressman Waxman, one of our greatest heroes, as he prepares to retire at the end of the year.