Openly gay legislators often fight solitary battles
March 08 2005 1:00 AM ET
Surrounded by kindergarten classmates chanting "Nixon! Nixon!" on Election Day 1968, 4-year-old Adam Ebbin began shouting something else: "Humphrey! Humphrey!" "I don't think I knew what it meant, but I knew I was different," Virginia's first openly gay lawmaker recalled with a chuckle.
Times and presidents may have changed since that day, but Ebbin is still fighting to have his voice heard--no small feat during what some consider the most antigay legislative session in Virginia's history. "People say, 'Isn't it discouraging?'...and I disagree totally," said Ebbin, a Democrat from Alexandria, in suburban Washington, D.C. "I know that any time that people are going to tell lies about gays and lesbians on the House floor, that I can grab my mike and speak--and that's really empowering."
Ebbin is a rare openly gay legislator in the South and part of a small national fraternity of lawmakers who have publicly declared that they are gay or lesbian.
As the debate over same-sex marriage reaches legislatures across the nation, gay lawmakers are confronting legislation that personally affects their lives--including adoption by gay couples and other issues.
"It's very difficult to sit in a legislative body, watching them putting their stamp of approval on discriminatory laws," said state senator Ernesto Scorsone, who came out to his colleagues two years ago after 18 years in the Kentucky legislature. "But as in any other civil rights struggle, it's a long
road, and we're going to have some bumps in the road."
Some say it's a challenge to be a voice for gay rights legislation while still representing all their constituents. "I represent 125,000 people, except, at some level, I also represent all the gay people," said New York assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, whose sister is comedian Rosie O'Donnell. "So it becomes a harder line to balance those different interests, because those interest groups didn't elect me."
At the same time, however, openly gay legislators struggle not to be pigeonholed as one-issue candidates. "That's been the most disheartening thing," said Karla Drenner, the only openly gay legislator in Georgia and an advocate of environmental legislation. "I traded in the title of 'representative' for 'lesbian legislator."'
Drenner said it has been a lonely experience. "I don't really fit in anywhere. I'm still an outcast," said Drenner, adding that some people refuse to ride in the elevator with her. "And I think it's especially hard in the South."
Still, advocates say openly gay lawmakers can put a face on their cause, as Ebbin has done in Virginia.
"He brings a real voice and face for our community to the general assembly, and that is invaluable," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia. "I believe it does change the debate for some people."
The 2005 session, which ended February 27, gave Ebbin plenty to speak out about. The house of delegates passed measures that would make it difficult for same-sex couples to adopt children and that would authorize license plates celebrating "Traditional Marriage." The adoption bill was later rejected by a senate committee, and the license plate measure withdrawn by its sponsor. But the house and senate passed a bill that would write a ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution. "While Massachusetts and Vermont are entering the 21st century, Virginia is still struggling," Ebbin said.
In the socially conservative South, Ebbin, Drenner, and Scorsone are joined by only one other openly gay lawmaker, Sen. Julia Boseman in North Carolina, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington political action committee that supports and tracks the success of out gay candidates
nationally. Out of roughly 7,400 state legislators nationwide, 54 are openly gay, according to the group's latest count.
Gay lawmakers in blue states are not immune to the frustrations and challenges confronting their Southern counterparts. New York assemblywoman Deborah Glick said that while things have improved since she was elected as the state's first openly gay legislator 15 years ago, there is still much work to be done. "There were and continue to be instances of homophobia that come up in debates, which I always welcome, because it is rare that my colleagues who are straight get to hear directly some of the incredibly mean-spirited attitudes so clearly enunciated," Glick said.
Openly gay legislators, in turn, can clearly enunciate another view.
Just before the Virginia house voted 78-18 to approve the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, Ebbin made a passionate speech, likening the action to slavery, the Trail of Tears forced migration for American Indians, lynchings, and Massive Resistance, Virginia's official effort to thwart court-ordered public school desegregation. "Today is one of those moments for which we shall one day be ashamed," Ebbin told his colleagues. "I cannot stand by as this body continues to use gays and
lesbians as scapegoats."
Supporters of the amendment have argued it is vital to preserve marriage as an institution applying uniquely to one woman and one man and ward off court rulings such as one in Massachusetts that legalized same-sex marriage. "I knew that there would be antigay measures that would be very difficult to turn back," said Ebbin, who is single but hopes to someday get married and adopt children. "But I don't think anyone anticipated a year and a half ago how many different ways through how many different committees people who call themselves Christians would try and marginalize us and try to go back to a time when they could deny we exist."
Del. Richard Black, who was the sponsor of the Virginia adoption bill, said he's not trying to stamp out gay rights but is simply trying to preserve tradition. As for his personal feelings on Ebbin, after a lengthy pause, Black offered, "He's always prompt and, you know, on time to meetings." A moment later he added, "I think he works hard."
Ebbin likes to recite a quote that appears on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. It reads, in part: "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed... institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times."
Ebbin said he takes comfort in those words. "If you were a slave when you read that quote, it speaks to you," he said. "If you're a woman denied the right to vote, it speaks to you. And I think gays
and lesbians can see that it speaks to them." (Kristen Gelineau, AP)