The Pinking of Capitol Hill

By William Henderson

Originally published on Advocate.com July 02 2008 12:00 AM ET

When a few
employees approached the Equal Employment Opportunity
Office at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in
1998 and asked about creating an affinity group for
gay and lesbian staffers, the answer was yes. But the
effort stalled—becoming a member of the group would
require people to come out, which no employee wanted to do.

So while closeted
gay employees sat on the sidelines, groups for female,
American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and
disabled workers were created at the SEC, and several
of the companies over which it has governance were
touting their LGBT employee groups: AT&T launched
its group in 1987, Microsoft in 1993, Ford in 1994, and
Raytheon in 2002.

It wasn’t
until this June that the SEC’s LGBT affinity group
held its first events in Washington, D.C. In advance
of the group’s inaugural meeting on June 10,
gay Democratic congressman Barney Frank of
Massachusetts delivered a keynote address June 9 on the
power of visibility. “By the process of coming
out, we have helped America understand that they were
not antigay,” Frank said. “They just thought
they were supposed to be.”

This time around,
about 30 SEC employees have signed on as members.
“We’ve had to wait a while, but once we
started pushing hard for it, the idea was received
warmly,” says SEC attorney Scott Pomfret, who is
cochair of the employee group. “It’s time for
the people of the SEC to recognize the contributions
that gay and lesbian employees make here on a
day-to-day basis. And that way, prospective SEC employees
will know that this is a place where they won’t
have to worry about being out.”

So why the wait?
Blame the frigid climate toward gays in D.C. under the
Bush administration. “We’ve got people in the
financial services industry or at the SEC who think,
If people know I’m gay or lesbian, will
that hurt my ability to keep my job?
” Frank,
who is chairman of the House Financial Services
Committee, tells The Advocate. “Well, I have a
major role in that industry right now. The people who run
these entities have to be nice to me whether they like me or
not. So it’s hard to be nice to me and then be
prejudiced against some lesbian.”

Barney Frank (1998 Getty x100) | Advocate.com

And as it grows
warmer for gay men and women on Capitol Hill, it’s
also getting easier to come out and ask for what we
want.

When Atty. Gen.
Michael Mukasey was appointed, Department of Justice
employees got permission to reconstitute their DOJ Pride
employee group, which had not been allowed to post
notices of meetings or events on department bulletin
boards under the reigns of former attorneys general
John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. And Frank and fellow gay
U.S. representative Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin
Democrat, are cochairing the recently formed House
LGBT Equality Caucus, formed to take the lead on LGBT
issues before Congress. “Until the Democrats regained
the majority in 2006, such a caucus would have had
little or no impact,” Baldwin says.
“Being in the majority has meant being able to
advance legislation rather than just play
defense.”

Then comes the
potential Obama factor. “Having a president in the
White House who will not only sign the Matthew Shepard
Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act but who
will show leadership from the White House to make sure
the bills come through in the strongest form possible,
that’s going to make an enormous difference,”
Baldwin says. Working on ENDA and hate-crimes law this
year, she says, drove home the need for a more
centralized educational resource on LGBT issues on the Hill.

“A big sea
change of hope is washing over Washington,” says Bob
Witeck, CEO and cofounder of Witeck-Combs
Communications. The longtime D.C. insider predicts
several positive changes for gays in the next few years,
including the extension of domestic-partner benefits to
federal employees and the appointment of an openly gay
cabinet member.

“The
marriage battles will still be state by state. We
can’t change that,” Witeck says.
“But the federal government can begin to undo its own
inequities with its workforce and set an example.”