NEW YORK – In Maine, a congressman running for governor came out as gay. In Hawaii, lawmakers prepared for a vote to legalize same-sex marriage. And in the U.S. Senate, seven Republicans joined the Democrats in a landmark vote to ban workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
From one end of the country to the other, the overlapping developments on a single day underscored what a historic year 2013 has been for the U.S. gay rights movement — “the gayest year in gay history,” according to Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, the movement’s largest advocacy group.
Yet each of Monday’s developments, while heralded by activists, revealed ways in which the gay rights debate remains complex and challenging for many Americans.
Republicans, for example, are increasingly split on how to address gay rights issues — some want to expand their party’s following, while others want to satisfy the religious conservatives who make up a key part of the party’s base. More than 40 percent of Americans remain opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage. And even some prominent gays remain uncertain whether they should make their sexual orientation known to the world at large.
Mike Michaud, the Democratic congressman from Maine, said he came out to dispel “whisper campaigns” about his sexuality as the three-way race for governor in 2014 begins to take shape. Through his six terms in the House of Representatives, he had never before spoken publicly about his sexual orientation, and he broke the news to his mother only hours before releasing his statement.
In Hawaii, where the state House is debating a Senate-passed gay marriage bill, thousands of citizens have signed up to testify — and the majority of those who have spoken thus far oppose the measure.
And in Washington, even as gay rights supporters celebrated the Senate’s backing of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, House Speaker John Boehner conveyed his opposition and left it unclear whether the Republican-controlled House will even vote on the bill, known as ENDA.
Boehner “believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs,” said his spokesman, Michael Steel.
Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay issues, said he was on the Senate floor in 1996 when an earlier version of ENDA lost by a single vote.
“It’s poignant for me that it’s taken 17 years to get another vote on something as basic as workplace discrimination,” he said.
“Even though we’re making rapid progress on marriage equality, and the entire movement seems unstoppable, there are still big pockets of resistance,” Socarides added. “It’s going to cost a lot of money and require a lot of work to get us to where anti-gay discrimination no longer exists.”
Monday’s 61-30 vote on ENDA demonstrated that the Senate’s Republican minority could not muster the votes needed to block the bill by using the filibuster — a procedural maneuver under Senate rules that requires 60 votes to bring measures to a final vote. The legislation could win final Senate passage by week’s end.
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn’t stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The bill would bar such discrimination by employers with 15 or more workers.
Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of them also prohibit such discrimination based on gender identity.
Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the most striking aspect of the ENDA debate was the division surfacing in the Republican Party — with several prominent Republican senators supporting the bill and yet Boehner signaling his opposition even before the Senate vote was held.
“There is no doubt that the American public is changing on this issue very quickly,” Sainz said. “That’s what makes what Boehner did today such a head-scratcher.”
The Senate vote on ENDA was among a series of major victories for the gay rights movement this year, highlighted by two Supreme Court decisions in June. One ruling cleared the way for ending a ban on same-sex marriages in California; the other struck down a 1996 law passed by Congress that banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Gay marriage is now legal in 14 states and Washington, D.C., and bills are pending this week that will add Hawaii and Illinois to that group.
If the House does indeed balk at passing ENDA, it could increase pressure from gay rights activists on the White House to issue an executive order barring anti-gay workplace discrimination by federal contractors. Gay rights groups have criticized President Barack Obama for refusing to take that step; he has been saying that congressional action would be preferable.