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Gay Politicians: Washington's In Crowd Is Out


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let me start by thanking my colleague Celeste Headlee for sitting in for me last week so I could try to vanquish this cold - some traces of which you might still hear, so apologies for that. We have an important show today. In a few minutes, we'll tell you why Mississippi is set to end a program that actually started in the state in 1918 - conjugal visits for lower-level offenders. The origins of the program is just one of the things that might surprise you. That's ahead.

But first, we want to talk about a milestone in Congress that you might or might not have been aware of. Now, we sometimes take note of the gender or racial or religious diversity in Congress. If you pick up the latest issue of the National Journal, you will see eight openly gay members of Congress on the cover. That includes one member of the Senate, Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin. The issue features personal essays from some of those members as well as an analysis of the political issues of particular concern to LGBT-Americans. We wanted to hear more about all of this, so we've called Adam Kushner. He's the executive editor of the National Journal. Adam, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ADAM KUSHNER: Thanks for having me, in solidarity with your cold.

MARTIN: Oh, thank you. And also joining us, Congressman Mark Takano. He represents the 41st congressional district. That's in Southern California. He wrote one of the essays which is included in the edition of the journal. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us as well.

REP. MARK TAKANO: Great to be here and great to be getting over my cold, too.

MARTIN: All right. Well, here we are. We're all together on this. So Adam Kushner, could you just start by telling us why did the magazine decide to do this special report now? Was it something that you had already had percolating for some time and thought this was the right moment? Or what was it?

KUSHNER: Absolutely. I think it's been percolating across the country. And a decade ago I think something like this might have seemed a little strange. We do an annual Women in Washington edition, which makes obvious sense because, in recent years, women have gained a greater, if still incomplete, share of the power that's rightfully theirs. And that has transformed politics and policy and the culture of Washington. And as chroniclers of the D.C. ecosystem, it's natural for us to document that change. Now that can most definitively be said about LGBT people and the LGBT community as well.

You know, every day seems to bring more news about another ballot measure, a state legislature, a federal or state judge advancing LGBT rights in some way or another. There are now eight gay members - openly gay members of Congress. There's a whole new class of LGBT power professionals in D.C., and we survey kind of the 30 - excuse me - most influential. And, you know, we are a magazine dedicated to documenting the tectonic shifts happening beneath the surface topography in town, and this is a very major one.

MARTIN: Congressman Takano, let me ask about this. You know, sometimes members of Congress - and as you point out in your essay - every member of Congress is sent to represent all of their constituents regardless of age, race, social standing or sexual orientation, quoting you here. Did you have any hesitation about highlighting this particular aspect of your identity? And I also want to point out you are the first nonwhite LGBT member of Congress, the first person of a member of an ethnic minority, if you will. So, you know, sometimes people think, well, I don't want to focus on those things because some of my constituents won't like it. Did you have any hesitation about that?

TAKANO: Well, there was never any hesitation during my 2012 run for the Congress. But, you know, I ran for the Congress 20 years ago, more than 20 years ago, actually twice, where my sexual orientation was an issue. And in fact, in 2000 - actually 1994, it was - it became a theme of my opponent at the time. And it was a much different time. And 20 years since then, the times have changed. And so there was - we never hid it. We never hesitated to take an interview with a journalist who actually want us to compare what it was like to run 20 years ago versus now as a gay person.

MARTIN: And it was a factor in your race back then. It really - it clearly was.

TAKANO: Yeah, and I wasn't out. I mean, I didn't - I was outed in 1994 after I had come very close in 1992. And even though I was - I didn't really, you know, say, yes, it's true. I sort of deflected the question. So there was hesitancy back then. But in 2012, we didn't evince any hesitancy. But the press - the press neither made it an issue, and actually my opponent, my Republican opponent, chose not to make it an issue either.

MARTIN: You know what? I was wondering about that, Congressman. Is this a - you know, the piece of Adam Kushner's - for the special issue, he spoke at length with former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, who was the longest serving openly-gay member of Congress. And he talked a lot about, you know, you had to have a specific strategy, you know, around coming out back then. There was a lot of thought given to just even how one comported oneself in public. And, Mark Takano, can I ask you, Congressman, do you still feel that way? Do you still have to have a strategy around how you comport yourself in public in a way or that how you manage your personal life that would be different from a similarly situated straight person?

TAKANO: I think - I think from the big picture, I think members of Congress who are LGBT, you know, are under very similar kinds of public expectations that, you know, straight members are, you know. You know, we want to lead, you know, lives of discretion and dignity, and we don't want to distract from the real purpose of our being in Congress, which is to serve the American people. So, you know, but as far as, you know, my social life - and, you know, I'm a single person - I don't have any hesitancy about attending social functions or worry about a photographer over my shoulder just because I think we live in different times. I think people would yawn if - there's nothing salacious about being an openly gay person in the Congress. And I think it's really tricky for an opponent to try and make it the centerpiece of their campaign. And therefore, they'd lose as many votes as they would gain. So it cuts both ways and yeah.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about National Journal's Gay in Washington issue. We're talking about this with Congressman Mark Takano - that's who was speaking just now - also, the magazine's executive editor Adam Kushner. Adam Kushner, one of the things that, you know, I learned from the interview with Barney Frank was how he was, like, secret dancing at a White House event. He wanted to dance with his partner, and so they kind of had to wait until the dance floor was full so they could - what he called secret dancing, which I think was kind of a poignant - coined a poignant image. So going forward, though, what do you see now as kind of the major issues of concern to LGBT members? It's not having to, you know, hide their personal lives. So what is it?

TAKANO: Well...

MARTIN: I was asking Adam Kushner this...

TAKANO: Go ahead. Go ahead.

MARTIN: ...And then I'll ask you, Congressman. All right.

KUSHNER: I'm sure the congressman has some very valuable insights on this as well, probably more than I do. But I mean, I think, obviously, the success of different kinds of political strategies, you know - are lawsuits the best avenue to advance LGBT rights versus working inside the political process? We have an amazing story in the magazine this week about how gay marriage opponents in the United States, having largely lost the battle here or who are at least in process of losing the battle here, are exporting their arguments abroad and finding much friendlier audiences around the world from Russia to India to Nigeria to Belize.

And they are helping those governments where same-sex marriage and same-sex love is, you know, very much frowned upon. They're helping those governments criminalize homosexuality. So that's a major development and a trend that's the result of greater openness in the United States, I think.

MARTIN: Congressman, what about you? I'm particularly interested in whether there's a particular kind of legislative focus that the LGBT members and their allies are concentrating on.

TAKANO: Well, I think we're most focused on trying to get ENDA passed to ensure that every person who - regardless of where they live in this country, cannot be fired just because of who they are. I think most polling shows that most Americans agree that when it comes to employment that, you know, people should be really judged by, you know, their competency and not, you know, who it is they choose to love or who they're in a relationship with. And so that's kind of our biggest hurdle.

MARTIN: ENDA being the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

TAKANO: Yes, that's right. Thank you. A number of states have laws on the books, like California has the laws on the books which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. But in many states, it's very possible for people to be fired from their jobs because of who they are. That's a very important piece of legislation, and it has to be done legislatively. It cannot be done through executive order. And speaking of executive orders, you know, this president - this president has been very - has been very supportive in terms of how he interprets statutes and his use of the - his pen as far as issuing executive orders. But, you know, a different president could reverse a lot of favorable executive orders and the way that agencies interpret certain tax issues. So we need to codify these, so that they can't be so easily overturned.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you one more question? We have about a minute and a half left. I wanted to ask you - we're going to talk about the Grammys later. But one of the - it was kind of, surprise, not really a surprise features of the Grammys was a mass wedding that included LGBT couples - they were not exclusively LGBT couples at the Grammys last night - over a song about same-sex marriage and love called "Same Love" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. And, you know, people have different feelings about this. One the one hand, people feel that it's important to make these kinds of cultural statements at big - in a big way.

Other people think that just kind of, you know, creates opportunities for people to be mad. And I just wondered if you had an opinion about that, Congressman, as a person who is kind of fighting the fight in the trench level. I mean, Congressman Barney Frank, in his interview with National Journal, was very clear that he feels that legislatively this is the way to go - stay focused on legislation, you know. He said the NRA is your model. What's your take on that if you don't mind my asking?

TAKANO: Well, concrete legislative rights, civil rights that are, you know, definitely enforced by the courts, you know, that's very, very important. That lays the groundwork for attitudes socially to change. Now I remember my parents taking my brothers and I aside when they explained to us how friends of ours were from a mixed-race marriage. And the attitudes in the late '60s, you know, were, you know, much different than they are today. And I remember how those attitudes evolved. When we passed civil rights laws in the early '60s, you know, we still have not, you know, fully evolved socially, but we have moved in incredible bounds. Similarly with, you know, issues around same-sex marriage and LGBT equality, there will be formal legal equality before there's really, you know, favorable social attitudes that evolve fully...

MARTIN: All right.

TAKANO: ...And that's how I see it.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we'll have to leave it there for now. Congressman Mark Takano represents California's 31st District - 41st District. That's in Southern California. He was with us by phone from his office. Adam Kushner is the executive editor for National Journal magazine with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

TAKANO: My pleasure.

KUSHNER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.