Here’s the message for the LGBT movement out of Tuesday night’s results: We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose either. It’s time to stay steady and focus on our victories ahead.
First, let’s acknowledge the bad news.
Yes, we’re certainly nursing some wounds this week. Seeing Senators Mark Udall, Kay Hagan, and others go down to defeat really hurts, especially after they cast such critical votes for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act last year. We lost pro-equality House members and pro-equality governors — and we gained a few true radicals on Capitol Hill (Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin and Jody Hice of Georgia will make Rep. Michele Bachmann look even-handed by comparison when they join Sen. Ted Cruz on Capitol Hill come January). What’s more, we lost key seats in state houses around the country — at a moment when our adversaries want to push forward new anti-LGBT legislation in these chambers.
The reason is simple. Midterm elections tend to skew to an older electorate, and Tuesday was certainly no exception. That tends not to bode well for pro-equality candidates.
But now, the good news — and some perspective.
There was not a single race where supporting LGBT equality cost an elected official their seat, and the Republicans who were victorious tended to avoid LGBT issues altogether.
Each and every openly LGBT member of Congress running for reelection won last night. Maura Healey became the first out LGBT attorney general with her win in Massachusetts. The lead bipartisan sponsors of ENDA, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon, won in commanding fashion. Even in an election where the electorate was deeply conservative, the exit polls showed that most voters supported marriage equality — including a 14-point jump in support among voters under 30 since 2010. That’s because, unlike in past elections, more than 200 million Americans live in states with marriage equality — and that number continues to expand on an almost daily basis.
This may not be our best election, but it is far from our worst.
Think back to 2004, when all 11 statewide bans on marriage equality on the ballot were passed by the voters. Think back to 2008, when the most populous state in the country, California, came out to the polls to pass Proposition 8.
Time and time again, committed and loving gay and lesbian couples were used as a wedge issue to drive voters to the polls. Not this year. This time, Americans focused on what mattered most to them — the economy and jobs. It’s a funny thing to say, but in this election, silence on LGBT issues counts as a measure of progress.
The pundits will debate for weeks about what this election means. We’ll leave that to them. But here’s what we know for sure: the LGBT movement has never made progress by writing anyone off. When the new Congress takes over in January, there will still be 100 potential pro-equality votes in the U.S. Senate, and 435 potential pro-equality votes in the U.S. House (well, maybe 99 and 433, we’re pretty sure Cruz, Grothman, and Hice will never be with us). At the Human Rights Campaign, we’ll be fighting for every single one of those votes. Sounds improbable? No more improbable than getting Republican Utah senator Orrin Hatch’s support for ENDA last year or than having GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, come out in support of marriage equality.
We’ll need those Republican votes, because as soon as the next session of Congress begins, we’re going to find ourselves in the heart of a two-front battle.
On one hand, we’ll be fighting for a fully comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill for the first time ever — a bill with nondiscrimination protections that don’t just stop at employment but that finally reach each and every aspect of our lives, from housing to public accommodations to credit, jury service, federal funding, and the education we all need to thrive. But at the same time, we may have to fight back against new anti-LGBT legislation that seeks to legalize discrimination against our community under the guise of religious freedom. It’s possible, even likely, that we’ll see these bills not just at the federal level, but in state houses across the country.
In the face of these challenges, we’re going to have to fight harder than we’ve ever fought before.
More importantly, we’re going to have to change minds we’ve never changed before. HRC and our more than 1.5 million members and supporters have got to redouble our efforts to advance nondiscrimination legislation at the municipal level and the state level. We’ve got to reach new workplaces through our Corporate Equality Index, countless new communities through Welcoming Schools, we’ll deepen our commitment to advancing our equality in the Deep South through Project One America and around the world through HRC Global. We’ll keep opening doors of churches, synagogues, and mosques through our work in communities of faith. This kind of work transcends elections and political parties, and Tuesday’s results didn’t change the importance of that work one bit.
But what also hasn’t changed is our commitment to LGBT people living in small towns from Arkansas and Mississippi to Wyoming and Nebraska. These are folks who went to bed Tuesday night not worried about the outcome of an election, but about whether they will be able to get married without getting fired — or come out as transgender without getting kicked out of their home. Those challenges put our struggle in Congress into perspective, and it renews our commitment to dig in for the fights ahead.
We may be disappointed with the results of this election, but that can never distract us from the urgent challenges just around the corner.
It was a rough night, no doubt about it. We can mourn what we’ve lost, as long as we roll up our sleeves too. Because now is the time to come together. Now is the time to find that common ground. Now is the time to fight.
CHAD GRIFFIN is the president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization.