I yearn for the day when being a GLBT American is no more remarkable than being an Irish American. We still would be a definable group with an interesting and sometimes bitter history. We even might continue to hold parades every June. But the days of obsessing about politics would be long gone, because we finally would be equal. Obviously, we’re not there yet. Even more worrisome is that we’re stuck in a trap threatening to keep us from ever reaching that sweet day.
I call it the glamour trap. It’s a beguiling snare, consisting of the idea that we must focus on the glamorous world of national politics, while relegating state affairs to stepchild status. The evidence of our enchantment is obvious.
The largest and most prominent GLBT group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), focuses primarily on national legislation, as well as Presidential and Congressional politics. The resources pouring into HRC dwarf anything trickling into state groups.
For example, HRC raised $28 million in 2003 to buy and renovate a building in Washington, DC. Three years later, 46 GLBT groups seeking operating funds in 39 states couldn’t even raise as much as HRC did for that one building. The budgets of the state organizations totaled only $26 million, according to the Equality Federation’s 2007 State of the States report.
HRC took in $42 million in revenue and support in its most recently completed fiscal year. It boasts of more than 150 paid staff members. State groups average a mere four paid employees per organization; some can’t afford to hire anyone.
Why does this matter? Let me count the ways.
First, let’s be real. Politicians don’t sprout full-grown from inside the Beltway. The path to Congress, or the White House, often begins at a state legislature, a city council, or even a school board.
Representative Tammy Baldwin, the only out lesbian in Congress, launched her political life on the Dane County Board of Supervisors in Wisconsin. The only out gay Congressman and committee chair, Barney Frank, began his elected career in the House of Representatives in Massachusetts.
Congressional allies Senator Barack Obama, Representative Henry Waxman, and Representative Dennis Kucinich started, respectively, in the Illinois Senate, California State Assembly, and Cleveland City Council.
Anti-GLBT politicos like former Representative Tom DeLay and Federal Marriage Amendment sponsor Representative Marilyn Musgrave began their careers, respectively, in the House of Representatives in Texas and the Morgan County School Board in Colorado.
Imagine what our lives would be like if pro-GLBT candidates always won local elections, and the likes of DeLay and Musgrave couldn’t even get onto a school board.
During the last frightful decade, we saw that state politics also can be the life or death of equal rights. In that time, GLBT Americans have battled against bans on marriage equality in 27 states. We have won only once. In addition, states have jurisdiction over family law. Adoption, inheritance rights, and hospital visitation are just a few of the issues that can be won—or lost—only in the states.
And then, we have the problem of the US Constitution. The founders played a nasty trick on city folk. Largely because of the institution of the US Senate, the Constitution gives rural Americans disproportionate power in deciding national issues.
The 4.7 million people of Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska get ten votes in the Senate, while the 36.5 million people of California have a mere two votes. Wyoming is represented by two senators, even though its 515,000 souls number far fewer than the average population of a Congressional district in any other state. If population size were the only factor in determining representation, Wyoming wouldn’t even qualify for one vote in Congress.
In an age when filibusters rule, and nothing passes the Senate without 60 votes, GLBT Americans may win few Congressional victories without first electing equality-minded politicians in rural states.
This is not an attack on HRC. Although I’ve disagreed with it at times, I’ve seen the organization do important work. It has provided an increasing amount of funding and other support for state organizations.
HRC’s leaders are among the savviest activists in the nation. Yes, I’m biased. Among the many people I know at HRC is President Joe Solmonese. We met in 1994, when we worked on a campaign together, and I’ve admired him ever since.
If the disasters of the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t ignore Congress.
This isn’t about good guys versus bad guys. We must find a balance between our state and national efforts. If we don’t, our vision of a sweet future never will be more than a dream.
Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor whose freelance writing has appeared in Ms. Magazine, <Salon.com>, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication.