By Kris Kitto - 08/05/08 04:06 PM EDT
It was two teachers who inspired Rep. Christopher Shays to become one of only two GOP members in the new Congressional Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) Equality Caucus.
Shays, who has represented his Connecticut district for more than 20 years, remembers one of his teachers in Darien, Conn., traveling to Washington nearly every weekend. Later, he learned that his teacher made those trips because he was afraid he’d lose his job if seen around town with his partner.
A number of teachers influenced his decision to go into public service, and all of them — gay and straight — contributed to his political success, Shays said.
“I wouldn’t have been a member of Congress if it weren’t for all my teachers, and two of them happened to be gay,” he said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) and Shays occupy a lonely position in their party. They are two of the few GOP lawmakers who have taken on LGBT issues as part of their legislative priorities.
Shays and Ros-Lehtinen are undaunted by the de facto leadership positions they’ve taken within the House GOP on LGBT issues. Both have personal experiences they credit for their strong interest in an issue traditionally claimed by the Democratic Party.
Shays points to caucus co-chairmen Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and former colleague Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz), who came out as a gay man in 1996 while serving in the House, as his inspiration for joining a group whose goals, he says, are to extend equal rights, repeal discriminatory laws, eliminate hate-motivated violence and improve health and well-being for everybody.
Baldwin and Frank are “two of the best members in Congress,” said Shays, and are prime examples of “how wrong it is that they could be discriminated against in the workplace.”
He marvels at how Kolbe, who fought in the Vietnam War as a U.S. Navy officer, could have been discriminated against because of his sexual orientation under the military’s current “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
These reasons are more than enough for Shays to feel moved to join the LGBT caucus with little support from his party, he said.
“For me it’s a badge of honor,” he said. “These are the things you look back on and you ask, ‘Was I silent, or was I part of the solution?’ I want to be part of the solution.”
Ros-Lehtinen says the diversity of her district makes her membership in the new caucus natural. She represents Key West, an island city known as a popular gay travel destination and residential area, and says her philosophy is easily summed up by its “One Human Family” motto.
“Our South Florida community is … a very all-encompassing and accepting community,” she said.
Like Shays, Ros-Lehtinen doesn’t worry about how her GOP colleagues view her stance on these issues. “I vote for what I believe in, and I believe in these values,” she says.
Both hope they’ll have GOP company in the caucus soon. Along with other Republicans, they said they see changes within their party that could lead more GOPers to support LGBT issues.
“I’m optimistic about the progress that we’ve made in this Congress with Republicans,” says Patrick Sammon, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay and lesbian Republican grassroots organization.
He points to the 35 GOP members of the House who voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) as evidence of “a new generation of House members that understand that the public is moving quickly on these issues.” The act, approved by the House, would end employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“There’s vast support for basic fairness,” Sammon said.
Both Baldwin and Frank say they’d like to recruit more Republicans to the caucus, although Frank isn’t optimistic.
“I don’t have high hopes,” Frank said. Although 35 Republicans voted for the non-discrimination bill, Frank said he was disappointed that 27 of those Republicans voted to kill the bill by sending it back to committee.
Some conservative House Republicans also throw cold water on the idea that a shift within their party is taking place.
“I would never begrudge anyone — left, right or center — to come together around a specific issue,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who has opposed legislation protecting gays and lesbians from hate crimes and employment discrimination. Pence argues such crimes are already illegal, and the legislation Congress has considered would infringe on religious freedoms.
He doesn’t foresee the issue gaining traction with the GOP, and said opposition to allowing gays and lesbians to marry would prevent GOPers from joining the caucus.
“I would not anticipate a significant number of Republicans participating, given many of the members’ belief in marriage,” he said.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) is ripe for caucus membership but won’t get the chance because of his primary defeat, a loss Frank lamented.
Gilchrest said his inspiration for supporting LGBT legislation comes from a gay brother whom he calls “a normal human being” and adds that many of his party colleagues will have to overcome fear and ignorance to support these issues.
Kolbe thinks the membership of Shays and Ros-Lehtinen is a good sign for the future.
“A few years ago, you wouldn’t have had two Republican members in the caucus,” said Kolbe, who retired from Congress in 2006.
But “things are changing, and people know that,” he said. He also predicted that LGBT legislation will have a better chance of being signed by the next president, whether it’s Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Several Republican members leave the door open to joining the caucus.
Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who voted for ENDA, says he would take a look, but added that he is “very comfortable right now” supporting employment non-discrimination and anti-hate crimes legislation.
Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) also voted for ENDA and would consider any request to serve on any caucus.
“We’ll wait and see what their agenda is, and hopefully they’ll ask me,” he said.
Two other ENDA GOP supporters aren’t so sure about joining the caucus. Rep. Mary Bono-Mack (R-Calif.) says she probably would not join the caucus because she doesn’t “feel the need” and already serves on several caucuses. And Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) says he hasn’t “given it any thought” but doesn’t make a practice of joining caucuses.
All GOP House members will likely be hearing from Shays, who says he plans to write “Dear Colleague” letters and provide any information other Republicans need to support LGBT legislation and consider joining the caucus.
“I think a lot of people in my party understand that there’s logic to this issue, [but] they don’t want to be in the front of it,” he says. “I’m more than happy to be a part of this effort.”