Respect for Marriage Act is headed to Biden after U.S. House vote
With 258 votes in favor, 169 opposed, and one Member voting “present,” the legislation will now be signed into law
WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday took a final vote on the Respect for Marriage Act, sending the landmark legislation to President Joe Biden’s desk where it will be signed into law with 258 votes in favor, 169 opposed, and one member voting “present.”
Members in the lower chamber had already passed the Respect for Marriage Act this summer, 267-167, with 47 Republican “yes” votes. The matter before the House today was whether to approve an amendment that was added by the U.S. Senate to enshrine protections for religious liberties.
The Senate cleared the Respect for Marriage Act on Nov. 29, just barely clearing the 60-vote threshold to avert a filibuster with 61 votes in favor of passing the legislation.
Once signed into law, the bill will protect same-sex couples in the U.S. from many of the most harmful consequences that would result if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or substantially weakens constitutional protections for same-sex marriage.
After voting today, U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) told the Washington Blade outside the Speaker’s Lobby in the U.S. Capitol that passage of this bill is “really a watershed moment,” as it marks “the first time we’ve adopted marriage equality legislatively in this country.”
When New Hampshire’s legislature passed same-sex marriage in 2009, “at the time, we needed to make some clarifications in the text of the legislation to protect religious freedom to bring along the majority that we needed to pass the bill,” said Pappas, who is the state’s first openly gay member of Congress.
“This is a similar situation, here, to get to 60 in the Senate,” for a filibuster proof majority, and “to get a big bipartisan vote in the House,” Pappas said, adding that “in a logical world” the amendment might earn a few more GOP votes this time around.
“Congress has restored a measure of security to millions of marriages and families,” President Biden said in a statement following the vote. “They have also provided hope and dignity to millions of young people across this country who can grow up knowing that their government will recognize and respect the families they build.”
Asked what to expect from the next Congress in terms of legislative protections for LGBTQ rights, Pappas said it will be important to continue conversations about the Equality Act to bring more Republican Members on board.
Additionally, he said, “I’m working on legislation that deals with the legacy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and making sure that our veterans get access to the care and benefits that they deserve.” Thousands of service members were “discharged wrongfully from the military just because of who they were, and while the administration has taken some positive steps, we need to submit legislation to make sure they get the help they need,” Pappas said.
The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus released a statement celebrating the House’s vote on Thursday.
“The Respect for Marriage Act is a bipartisan triumph and a testament that love will always win in the end,” said U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the caucus.
“After the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and Justice Thomas’ alarming concurring opinion, it became imperative that Congress do everything we constitutionally could do to ensure that marriages across this country continue to be protected,” he said. “Today, Congress did what needed to be done.”
U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) also released a statement.
“We are thrilled that the Respect for Marriage Act passed both the Senate and the House with robust bipartisan support. This commonsense legislation provides certainty to millions of loving couples in same-sex and interracial marriages, who will continue to enjoy the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities afforded to all other marriages,” it read. “At the same time, our legislation fully respects and protects religious liberty and diverse beliefs about marriage. This is an important and historic step forward in ensuring dignity and respect for all Americans.”
House Republicans pass anti-LGBTQ Parents Bill of Rights Act
The White House issued a statement Monday: “[…] the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school”
WASHINGTON – U.S. House Republicans on Friday passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act (H.R. 5), a proposal that would require public schools to share educational materials with parents and also contains provisions that would trigger the outing of LGBTQ students without their consent.
Critics say the legislation’s professed purpose, to equip parents with the information necessary for them to better engage with their children’s educators, is a pretext for its ultimate goals: for schools to censor out content addressing race, or materials containing LGBTQI+ characters or themes, while also discouraging LGBTQ students from being out at school.
The U.S. House Equality Caucus noted the likelihood of that outcome in a statement Friday denouncing the bill, which the group’s chair, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), called “dangerous” — pointing to its requirement for “schools to forcibly out transgender students, even if it puts those youth in harm’s way.”
“All children deserve access to a safe and affirming school environment,” Takano said in the statement. “Transgender youth have enough challenges already due to harassment, bullying, and anti-transgender state laws,” he said, adding, “My colleagues who voted for this bill should be ashamed.”
House members voted 213-208 for passage of the Parents Bill of Rights Act, with Republican U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Mike Lawler (N.Y.), and Matt Rosendale (Mont.) voting against the legislation with every Democratic member. The bill was first introduced by GOP Rep. Julia Letlow (La.)
With Democrats’ control of the U.S. Senate, movement on the bill will almost certainly be stopped once it reaches the upper chamber, but it may nevertheless still have a harmful impact on the country’s LGBTQ youth.
For example, the National Institutes of Health published a peer reviewed study last year that found a link between anti-trans legislation and “suicide and depression-related Internet searches” using a dataset comprising 40 bills that were introduced and reached committee, of which three were passed and signed into law.
The Caucus’s statement noted H.R. 5 contains “two provisions that would require schools that take steps to respect a student’s gender identity to forcibly out those transgender youth to their parents” along with another that would allow parents to access their children’s answers to survey questions, answers that might include information about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The risk that their parents will be able to see their answers will incentivize many students to lie about these and other questions, which the Caucus said will undermine the federal government’s ability to collect important demographic, statistical, and survey data on America’s LGBTQ youth.
Exacerbating that problem is another provision in the legislation, which requires parents to “opt-in” if their children would be asked to share their sexual orientation or gender identity.
America’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, also issued a statement Friday condemning H.R. 5.
“The bill — which picks and chooses which families have rights and which don’t — has occupied the chamber’s time while extremist House leaders continue neglecting the very real and urgent problems facing our schools, such as gun violence, teacher shortages and educational inequality,” the group said in its statement.
HRC also noted the legislation’s potential to trigger forcible outing of LGBTQ youth “would endanger students instead of fulfilling school officials’ obligation to make judgments on a case-by-case basis in the best interests of the students under their supervision.”
The organization said it expects House Republicans to move “in coming weeks” on H.R. 734, “a bill to ban participation by transgender youth in school sports,” and drew parallels between the Parents Bill of Rights Act and the “curriculum censorship seen in harmful, unnecessary bills passed in state legislatures recently.”
U.S. Rep. Melanie Stanbury (D-N.M.), a member of the Equality Caucus, echoed that message in her statement Friday, writing that H.R. 5 was “Modeled after bills passed at the state level, which have censored the teaching of American history, allowed book bans, and violated the safety and privacy of transgender and LGBTQ+ students.”
The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy on Monday addressing the bill, writing “The Administration does not support H.R. 5 in its current form because the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school” and “Moreover, instead of making LGBTQI+ students feel included in their school community, it puts them at higher risk.”
Takano to renew House Democrats’ push for the Equality Act
“With homophobic and transphobic legislation being proposed in state legislatures – it is far past time we act to outlaw discrimination”
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, issued a statement Thursday pledging to introduce the Equality Act during this Congress, legislation that would extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans.
The bill would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in “employment, education, access to credit, jury service, federal funding housing, and public accommodations.”
Four previous versions were introduced in the House by by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021. The Biden administration and Congressional Democrats have signaled that the legislation remains a major priority despite the Republicans now exercising their majority control of the lower chamber.
With Cicilline’s planned departure from Congress on June 1 to lead the nonprofit Rhode Island Foundation, Takano thanked and credited his colleague “for his leadership on behalf of our community and stewardship of the Equality Act.”
Cicilline, who drafted the legislation and chaired the Equality Caucus in the last Congress before Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) took over this year, noted the heightened importance of the Equality Act’s passage amid the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ and especially anti-trans legislation.
“With homophobic and transphobic legislation being proposed in state legislatures across the country and here in Congress,” he said, “it is far past time we act to finally outlaw discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community by passing the Equality Act.”
The legislation is also backed by major LGBTQ advocacy groups including the nation’s largest, the Human Rights Campaign. “There is overwhelming support for this bill among the American people and the business community, and we will continue fighting until this bill is signed into law,” said the organization’s President Kelley Robinson.
Robinson also thanked Cicilline for his leadership on the bill and said the Human Rights Campaign looks forward to working with Takano, “an incredible champion for our community” who “is the perfect leader for this effort” to “build on he work Congressman Cicilline started and get the Equality Act signed into law.”
Ritchie Torres speaks about personal mental health struggles
Openly gay N.Y. congressman appeared on ‘GMA3’
NEW YORK — New York Congressman Ritchie Torres has spoken out about his struggle with depression and the importance of mental health in the wake of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)’s recent hospitalization for clinical depression.
Torres, a Democrat who is the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress, told “GMA3” hosts DeMarco Morgan and Eva Pilgrim on Tuesday that he had “an obligation to tell” his “story in the hopes of breaking the shame and silence, and stigma that too often surrounds the subject of mental health.”
Torres views his coming to terms with his mental health issues — while also being open about it — as a form of “public service” to the American people.
“We live in a society that historically has shamed people for experiencing mental illness, that has framed mental illness as a failure of character or a failure of willpower. And I’m here to send a message that mental illness is nothing of which to be ashamed, that there are millions of Americans who struggle with depression and anxiety,” Torres explained.
Even before being elected to Congress, Torres, 34, spoke freely about his past experiences concerning mental health issues and how they affected him. While campaigning, one of his opponents tried to use his depression as a counterpoint to prove that he was not worthy of being in public office.
From then on, Torres vowed to “never again would I allow my mental health to be weaponized,” he told Time magazine.
He emphasized the importance of psychotherapy and medication as a means of controlling his depressive episodes and going through his day by day as a congressman.
He noted, however, that “there are people who have trouble accessing mental health care.”
“And even if you do, the process of experimenting with psychiatric medications can be draining and debilitating, because there’s no one size fits all,” he added.
Torres said he hopes that Congress can pave the way for more mental health care for the millions of Americans who need it.
“Our healthcare system is fundamentally broken and Congress is no closer to fixing it,” he argued.
I was once hospitalized because of severe depression. I thought of taking my own life because I felt the world around me had collapsed.
I would not be alive, let alone in Congress, were it not for mental health care.
— Ritchie Torres (@RitchieTorres) March 15, 2023
Senate confirms Garcetti for India ambassadorship
The period between Garcetti’s nomination and confirmation marked the longest stretch without a sitting U.S. ambassador to India
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate voted 52-42 on Wednesday to confirm former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination by President Joe Biden to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of India.
Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), and Mark Kelly (Ariz.) voted “nay,” while Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Steve Daines (Mont.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), Roger Marshall (Kan.), and Todd Young (Ind.) voted “yea.”
Garcetti’s appointment has been languishing in the Senate for nearly two years, threatened most recently by Democratic defectors who objected to unresolved allegations that the former mayor knew — or should have known — about sexual harassment by a former top aide, Rick Jacobs.
Hirono, who earlier this week had pledged to support Garcetti’s nomination, said Wednesday that she changed her mind after learning new information, but declined to offer specifics.
Throwing additional uncertainty into Wednesday’s vote was the absence of six senators including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is recovering from shingles and announced plans last month to retire at the end of her term, and Jon Fetterman (D-Pa.), who recently checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of clinical depression.
The White House and Garcetti nevertheless pushed for the vote, which had been delayed by the split control of the Senate until the new Congress was seated in January. The period between Garcetti’s nomination and confirmation marked the longest stretch without a sitting U.S. ambassador to India since formal diplomatic relations were first established with the country.
Sorensen: ‘We’re going to do better today for the next generation’
“I think it’s a point of extreme Republicans to run on this platform instead of solving the problems that we do have in front of us”
WASHINGTON – Whether on matters concerning climate change or LGBTQ rights, members of Congress ought to focus on making progress for the benefit of the next generation, U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.) told the Washington Blade.
“It’s making that decision today to talk about what’s in our future, not what’s in our past, and to say, ‘let’s just do what’s best for our kids,’” Sorensen said during an exclusive interview with the Blade from his office last week.
The congressman, who became the first openly gay member to represent the state of Illinois in either chamber with his election in 2022, has plenty of experience reaching folks with this message.
A meteorologist by trade, Sorensen began his television career at the ABC affiliate KTRE in Lufkin, Texas in 1999 before becoming chief meteorologist for WREX, Rockford, Illinois’s NBC affiliate, and then senior meteorologist at the ABC affiliate WQAD serving the Quad Cities area.
“You know, I was the one talking about climate change to farmers,” Sorensen said.
“Whenever I talk about climate change, I don’t fault anyone for being in a different place in the past,” he said, which helps to avoid positioning conservatives and climate skeptics in a defensive posture.
“We don’t ever have to agree on who’s causing climate change, or what 1.5 degrees celsius or two degrees celsius means,” Sorensen said. “Let’s just say that we’re going to do better today for the next generation, okay? And the same thing with LGBTQ issues, right?”
As it turned out, discussing climate change “wasn’t this third rail that we thought it was,” he said. Likewise, “it was the same thing as when I had my trans friends on television on Good Morning Quad Cities” for National Coming Out Day.
The move was important, Sorensen said, “so that my community could see these are real people…my friend Paula and my friend Chase are real people.” The congressman added, “we talked about how we came out, and we didn’t get any backlash [from the audience], because, you know what? I don’t live in a hateful community.”
Sorensen said the network looked at audience engagement metrics for segments featuring his trans friends, and for segments in which he addressed climate change, and the data repeatedly indicated that viewers were able to easily countenance both.
Some of this might be attributed to the good will he had built with this audience. After all, “I was the one they were turning to when the tornado was bearing down on their family’s home,” Sorensen said.
Regardless, “how do we expect people to understand if we don’t explain these things?”
‘Everyone should be speaking out’ against anti-trans extremism
Last week, Republicans on the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee passed legislation that would bar transgender women and girls from competing in school sports per Title IX.
The measure, part of a nationwide wave of anti-trans bills, is likely fated to languish in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
On the heels of a press conference to drum up opposition to the bill that was hosted by the Congressional Equality Caucus and its chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Sorensen said, “I’m disappointed because these are real people.”
“We have to understand that, you know, when we talk about the threat that transgender people face today, if you just look at what is being proposed, what the extreme Republicans are saying, is that there’s now a group of kids or a group of people that don’t deserve to learn what athletics is about,” said the congressman, who is also a co-chair of the Equality Caucus.
Sorensen said the message from Republican members backing this legislation is that “this group [of women and girls] doesn’t deserve to learn teamwork as a kid.”
“It’s terrible,” he said. “Everyone should be speaking out against this. What it just shows is that these Republicans, they’re just stoking fear and division and being extreme, instead of actually solving the problems of the people.”
“I think it’s a point of extreme Republicans to run on this platform instead of solving the problems that we do have in front of us,” Sorensen said.
He noted extremism doesn’t seem to have been a winning message for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, during which time the GOP’s focus was on issues like the economy and healthcare.
It is remarkable “how things have changed in such a short amount of time,” Sorensen said. “And that’s because the Republicans, these extreme Republicans, have decided that they’re going to to roll through this division and hate.”
“It’s insane,” he said, pointing to legislation like the bill proposed in the Iowa Legislature to ban same-sex marriage “when it’s already been set in stone.”
At the same time, the congressman said, there is ample reason for optimism. For example, “in the state of Illinois we rejected that hate because the state of Illinois elected its first LGBTQ member of Congress.”
And back in the Quad Cities, Sorensen had the chance to meet the next generation of out youth when volunteering at the area’s LGBTQ community center, Clock, Inc. “I just stood there in awe at these kids that were able to be themselves.”
Moving forward, Sorensen said Democrats should continue to prioritize issues that Americans actually care about.
“I don’t feel like we need to defend ourselves,” he said. “You know, if they want to put this wedge issue out there, we need to just be able to say, ‘I’m fighting for Americans. I’m fighting to lower the price of goods, connecting people to health care,’” which includes healthcare for trans folks as well as reproductive care including abortions.
“Sorensen said his identity as a gay man was not a central feature of his congressional campaign, but still, for many folks, “the only gay person that they knew was Eric Sorensen on channel eight.”
Growing up in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, Sorensen said he asked himself, “Why should I even try?” He told the Blade, “I can see in my head the pictures of a hospital room, and I thought, ‘that’s how I’m gonna die,’” he said, so, “why would I even try, when they’re never going to allow me to be on television?”
Having relocated from Lufkin to Tyler, after a couple of years working as a meteorologist in the comparably larger northeast Texas metropolitan area, Sorensen said his sexual orientation became a problem for his employer in 2003.
“My boss told me, ‘Eric, I need you to go to the conference room after your show’s over,’” the congressman remembers.
Laid before Sorensen was his employment contract, a document he had not seen since he had signed it. “All of a sudden,” he said, “the members of management walk in, and I was told to have a seat while nobody across the table sat down – so they were looking down upon me.”
They had been alerted to Sorensen’s profile on Gay.com and offered him the choice to “be that person,” pointing to a printout of his profile, “or have a job.”
From there, he took a pay cut to return to Illinois where “I got to be out,” he said, “I got to be myself,” while every day at work, “I was telling my mom and dad what the weather was like.”
The congressman added, “If I would have given up in that space in Texas, where would I be? I wouldn’t be here today.”
Pocan, Congressional Equality Caucus criticize trans sports ban bill
“Today, Republicans are showing their real priorities, political priorities, by considering a trans and intersex sports ban”
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and the Congressional Equality Caucus held a press conference Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol to rally opposition to House Republicans’ proposed legislation that would prohibit transgender women and girls from participating in sports.
The bill was slated for markup by the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee later Wednesday.
“I’m assuming by the time it gets to the floor, we have talked to many members of Congress, especially on the Democratic side, we’re gonna fight hard on this,” Pocan said in response to a question from the Washington Blade.
“I have no idea where some of the extreme politicians may try to take this, but the bottom line is they promised us they’re going to lower the costs for the American people they promised us smaller, less intrusive government, and now they’re being the biggest of big brother that can possibly be by trying to determine which kids can play in sports,” Pocan said.
Joining Pocan and the caucus at the press conference were Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, Rebekah Bruesehoff, a trans student athlete, and Jamie Bruesehoff, her mother.
“Today, Republicans are showing their real priorities, political priorities, by considering a trans and intersex sports ban as the opening salvo in their efforts to undermine the rights of LGBTQI+ people,” Pocan said during his prepared remarks.
“Women and girls face real problems on the field, from strained resources to unequal pay and sexual harassment and assault, but rather than dealing with these matters or other challenges like gun violence, members on the Education and the Workforce Committee will spend their first legislative markup targeting a handful of trans girls and women who participate in school sports,” Pocan said.
House Equality Caucus slams proposed GOP ban on trans athletes
The legislation would bar trans youth athletes, stipulating that “sex to be based solely on a person’s reproductive biology at birth”
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Congressional Equality Caucus has come out against a proposal from House Republicans to ban transgender student athletes.
“This is not about girls’ and women’s sports; it’s about attacking trans kids,” Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said in a press release Monday. “This sports ban is just the opening salvo in their larger efforts to limit the rights of and demonize the LGBTQI+ community, and the Equality Caucus will do everything it can to defeat it,” he said.
The Caucus’s issuance of the press release comes ahead of the bill’s scheduled mark-up on Wednesday by the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
The legislation would bar any participation in school sports by trans athletes, stipulating that “sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth” for purposes of compliance with Title IX.
Introduced by Republican Rep. Gregory Steube (Fla.) on Feb. 1, the bill’s 43 GOP co-sponsors include Reps. Ken Buck (Ohio), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Nancy Mace (S.C.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Jim Banks (Ind.), and George Santos (N.Y.), the scandal beleaguered gay congressman who faces multiple investigations over alleged financial crimes.
The Democratic Women’s Caucus joined the Equality Caucus in registering their opposition Monday ahead of the mark-up
“We will not let anti-LGBTQI+ Republicans—who have refused to work with us on addressing real gender equity issues—use “protecting women” as an excuse to attack trans youth,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.
Groups like the Women’s Sports Foundation and National Women’s Law Center support full and equal access and participation for trans student athletes.
House Ethics Committee opens probe of George Santos
The inquiry will evaluate whether the embattled congressman’s required financial disclosures as a candidate contained illegal omissions
WASHINGTON – The U.S. House Ethics Committee on Thursday announced it had voted unanimously to open an investigation of Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) over allegations of financial and sexual misconduct.
The ten-member body, divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, will now put Santos’s fate into the hands of an evenly divided subcommittee of four members led by Republican Rep. David Joyce (Ohio).
The subcommittee’s inquiry will evaluate whether the embattled congressman’s required financial disclosures as a candidate contained illegal omissions or conflicts of interest, as well as an allegation by an applicant to his congressional office that Santos made unwanted sexual advances towards him.
Santos did not comment beyond a statement shared on Twitter that was written in the third person:
“The House Committee on Ethics has opened an investigation, and Congressman George Santos is fully cooperating. There will be no further comment made at this time.”
The House Committee on Ethics has opened an investigation, and Congressman George Santos is fully cooperating. There will be no further comment made at this time.— Rep. George Santos (@RepSantosNY03) March 2, 2023
Democratic U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (N.Y.) – who, with U.S. Rep. Dan Goldman (N.Y.), filed the initial Ethics Committee complaint against Santos, tweeted:
“BREAKING: House Ethics has opened an investigation into George Santos. Rep. Dan Goldman and I filed an ethics complaint against the self-described terrible liar for violating House rules. Now Congress is one step closer to holding its most corrupt member accountable.”
BREAKING: House Ethics has opened an investigation into George Santos. Rep. Dan Goldman and I filed an ethics complaint against the self-described terrible liar for violating House rules.— Ritchie Torres (@RitchieTorres) March 2, 2023
Now Congress is one step closer to holding its most corrupt member accountable.
Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) previously said action might be taken with Santos pursuant to the results of an Ethics Committee investigation.
House Ethics Committee moves forward with investigation into Rep. George Santos:
Democrats should highlight GOP attacks on personal freedoms
Priorities for Balint include the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation & gender identity
WASHINGTON – On issues from the curriculum taught in schools to trans Americans’ access to healthcare, Democrats should focus their messaging on how their opponents’ policy proposals would threaten personal freedoms, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) told the Washington Blade.
The Democratic Party’s tendency to get into the minutiae “doesn’t always serve us well,” as it is generally more effective to relay broader ideas about “this fundamental American concept of freedom” that elected Republicans are working to undermine, Balint said during an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade from her office on Tuesday.
“We don’t like being told what to do as Americans,” she said, adding that the message resonates regardless of whether folks identify as liberals or conservatives, or whether they live in rural or urban areas: “We don’t want to be told what we can and can’t learn about; what we can and can’t talk about.”
Government intrusion and overreach into otherwise private matters concerning healthcare and education has been a hallmark of policies enacted by GOP leaders like Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presumptive but still undeclared candidate for the 2024 presidential race.
Examples have included banning books with LGBTQ characters and themes, last month’s rejection of an advanced African-American studies course, and the Florida Board of Medicine’s adoption of a policy threatening the licenses of medical providers who administer guideline-directed interventions for trans and gender nonconforming youth.
In a video shared on Rumble last month, former president and declared 2024 Republican candidate Donald Trump pledged to weaponize the federal government against trans Americans if elected, such as by terminating the Medicare and Medicaid eligibility of hospitals and facilities that perform gender affirming care for minor patients.
“Ideas around equity and justice are things that we go to as Democrats,” Balint said. “But those aren’t necessarily the words that folks who identify as independents or Republicans use for the same kinds of ideas.”
The congresswoman said it is more effective to frame these debates as matters of “freedom and fairness as opposed to justice or equity or equality,” which is why she will “continue to say, ‘do you want more government intrusion?’”
So, with the presidential primaries looming, it will be important for Democrats to use this paradigm to discuss Republicans like DeSantis interfering with their healthcare, “picking on queer and trans kids and people who support them,” or targeting teachers who are living and working in their communities, Balint said.
The congresswoman, herself a former history teacher, noted that educators are among those figures who are “holding civic society together.”
Fighting extremism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry in Congress
Balint, who made history as Vermont’s first openly LGBTQ U.S. representative, said Democratic leaders including members of Congress must “be much more open about who we are.”
“If my colleagues across the aisle took a few minutes to talk to families who are raising trans kids right now,” Balint said, “they would understand…that their rhetoric is increasing levels of anxiety, and depression, and disconnection – and that’s not the role of a public official.”
The efficacy of this strategy is underscored by the fact that anti-trans policies are based on lies. “Nothing about the rhetoric around trans Americans is based in reality,” Balint said. “It’s not based in the facts or the experiences of young people in this country.”
“When I talk about my life as a queer person, as a queer parent, as someone who is very open about my own mental health struggles, that gives other people permission to feel like they have a sense of place – in government, in their communities,” Balint said.
LGBTQ staffers on Capitol Hill have thanked Balint for speaking so openly about her identity, she told the Blade.
She said engaging in these discussions on personal terms can also be an effective way of reaching colleagues who, because they “have never had to deal with these issues,” have “learning curves.”
For example, Balint said, during the new Congress’s Jan. 7 swearing-in ceremony, she gently but firmly corrected another member for assuming her spouse in attendance was a man. After their exchange, the congressman found Balint again to apologize, promising that he will be sure never to repeat the mistake.
Balint hedged that other interactions have gone less smoothly. She said one of her main takeaways since arriving in Washington as a newly elected first-term member has been “the extent to which there are extremists within [the GOP],” which “is deeply disturbing to me as an American and certainly as somebody who’s a member of the LGBTQ community.”
Last week, House Republicans introduced a bill that would designate as America’s “national gun” the AR-15 style firearms used in deadly mass shootings, including the 2016 massacre at the former gay Orlando nightclub Pulse. Embattled gay GOP Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which Balint characterized as “a political stunt” and an example of the kind of extreme rhetoric that makes violence more likely.
The congresswoman said moves like this messaging bill take “our focus away from helping people,” adding that helping people is “why I ran for office – to make life better, to alleviate suffering,” not to use rhetoric and talking points “to raise money.”
Given the high rate of suicide in Vermont, Balint said her work in Congress, including for the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, will be focused on matters like probing the relationships between gun violence, gun policy, and suicide, including among vulnerable populations like “people within the LGBTQ community who don’t feel like they have the support” they need.
A co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Balint has been appointed to serve on the powerful House Budget and Oversight & Accountability Committees.
Priorities for Balint will include the Equality Act, a landmark bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in areas from employment and housing to jury service. A leading champion of the legislation, gay Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), announced plans to retire in May, so Balint said she was talking with him last night “about how we make sure that work continues.”
“We have to continue to fight these battles and these issues, regardless of whether we think they’re going to be able to pass this session,” she said, “because we have to queue it up for when [Democrats] are back in the majority.”
Other focus areas, she said, will be addressing the interrelated and ongoing housing and mental health crises in this country, as well as reproductive justice.
From 2015 to her swearing-in last month, Balint served as a Vermont state senator, including as majority leader and president pro-tempore. Unlike the U.S. House, Balint said, the Vermont Legislature “is pretty high functioning” with “a strong ability to work across the aisle.”
However challenging the calcified and polarized politics of Washington are by comparison, Balint noted there are moderate Republicans in the House. “We know because they were reaching out to members on our side saying, ‘we are not approving of what our leadership is doing around abortion issues.’”
For House Democrats, “it will be impossible for us in this moment to do anything” without the support of a few GOP members, which is a challenge because there are so few moderates in the party as a result of primary challenges from the far-right, Balint said.
“I’m not going to be a conflict entrepreneur”
Particularly in recent years and especially among Republicans, members of Congress have become bomb-throwers – prone to making outlandish and extreme statements, instigating and engaging in online spats with political opponents, and dehumanizing others.
Far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) has accused elected Democrats of “grooming” children for sexual abuse, compared COVID-19 mask mandates to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and, before her election to Congress, supported calls to assassinate Democratic Party leaders.
Despite – or perhaps in some ways because – of this record, Greene is widely considered a rising star within her party, becoming a top ally of newly elected Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and, according to data from Open Secrets, raising more money during the 2022 election cycle than any other House Republican member except for McCarthy, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.), Dan Crenshaw (Texas), and Jim Jordan (Ohio).
In this environment, amid the ceaseless attacks against them, Balint acknowledged the difficulty for LGBTQ people and their allies to refrain from responding in kind. At the same time, she said, “I’m not somebody who’s going to continue to keep a fight going for the sake of the fight.”
From “how I post [on social media] to the way I deliver my floor speeches [in the House],” Balint said, “it is this signal even to people within my own party, that I’m not going to be a conflict entrepreneur.”
Disagreements are bound to happen, and confrontation can be productive, the congresswoman said, but one must find the right approach and be mindful of the broader context.
Balint remains optimistic in the face of these challenges. She told the Blade she never imagined she would be able to marry the woman she loves, or raise two children, or be elected to serve as Vermont’s first openly LGBTQ member of Congress.
Nor, Balint said, did the framers envision “the child of an immigrant, a working class mom, a queer person,” would have the privilege of serving in this role. But “now that I’m here, I’m going to make the most of it, and I’m going to fight on behalf of all of our freedoms.”
Rep. Santos sponsors anti-Trans resolution, backs AR-15 measure
George Santos cosponsors two House bills one minimizing Trans rights & the other glorifying the weapon of choice in 2 LGBTQ mass shootings
WASHINGTON – Rep. George Santos (R-NY) cosponsored two resolutions in the House of Representatives, one that directly targets the transgender women and a second that the promotes the AR-15 assault rifle as the “national gun of America.”
H. Res. 115 and H.R. 1095, were both introduced and cosponsored by his fellow Republican lawmakers.
H. Res. 115, introduced by Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ), seeks to implement a “Women’s Bill of Rights,” so as to “reaffirm legal protections afforded to women under Federal law.” The resolution, however, directly challenges liberal gender norms by limiting the statutes to “biological differences between the sexes.”
Lesko’s legislation only recognizes the biological origins of a person’s birth certificate, thereby eliminating transgender rights be recognized publicly in this symbolic but showing telling of Republican political ideological goals.
Insofar as women’s rights go, the resolution tries to provide six points, three “for purposes of Federal law” focusing only on long-held defined gender terms for specific biological roles: “sex” to be defined as “biological sex at birth,” words such as “woman” and “girl”, and “man” and “boy” would be defined based on the sex assigned at birth, and “mother” and “father” are defined via their assigned sex.
Likewise, the language allows discrimination under the basis of the person’s sex “when they serve an important governmental objective and are substantially related to achieving that objective.”
“Protecting women’s rights should not be a partisan issue, yet the left cannot even define the word ‘woman,’” said Rep. Lesko in a statement. “I am proud to once again introduce this important legislation to affirm the basic biological truth that men and women are different and safeguard the rights of women in our laws.”
The Republican Long Island congressman has made homophobic allegations in the past in spite of his known gender orientation. “The family unit has been under attack for decades, decades!” Santos said on John Stubbins’s conservative “Indivisible” show. “In different ways, right? The flavor of the decade is same-sex couples. ‘Oh, that’s so OK!’ Look, to each their own, I don’t have anything against that but they’re teaching in school how kids that, you know, you don’t need a mommy and a daddy, you can have two mommies, you can have two daddies. I think that’s a little much for kids, right?”
H.R. 1095, on the other hand, seeks to make the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle the nation’s national gun. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Barry Moore (R-AL).
Santos’ backing of this resolution as an out LGBTQ+ congressman disregards the damage automatic rifles have caused to the LGBTQ+ community—such as the Pulse and Club Q mass shootings.
An angered New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) called Santos support “disgusting.” In a statement the Governor said:
“It’s outrageous and appalling that New York Congressman Santos would attach his name to legislation that would designate the AR-15 as the ‘national gun of the United States.’ This weapon of war has been used in mass shootings across the United States – from my hometown of Buffalo, where the shooter used a modified AR-15 to murder ten people in a despicable act of white supremacist terrorism, to Parkland, Florida, where the shooter killed seventeen innocent people with an AR-15-style weapon. The families and friends of those killed in Parkland have become heroic advocates for gun safety – including the Beigel-Schulman family of Dix Hills, who fight for change in memory of their son, Scott. This bill, which attempts to glorify the weapons that have been part of such horrific tragedies, adds unforgivable insult to injury for those families. It should never become law, and Congressman Santos should immediately remove his name from it, if he has any respect for New Yorkers.”
Both resolutions have yet to make it through to the House floor.
Rep. George Santos backs bill making AR-15 the “national gun” of U.S.:
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