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Gays Reassess After GOP Gains

Gays Reassess After GOP Gains


Democrats and progressive LGBT advocates were in for a long night Tuesday when news organizations began predicting around 9 p.m. Eastern that Republicans would take control of the House.

The wave of red, fueled by independents who gave President Barack Obama only a 32% approval rating, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on the eve of the election, meant the formula for equality gains would change considerably over the course of the next two years.

"This is going to be a real test of the leadership of the gay community," said Christopher Barron, chairman of the Board of GOProud, a conservative gay group. "This will be a test of whether partisanship will come first or if there will be a recognition that the leadership is actually interested in delivering for their constituency."

Advocates on both sides of the aisle almost uniformly agreed that the large agenda items such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Defense of Marriage Act repeal, and passing domestic partner benefits for government employees would be nonstarters in the 112th Congress. But most also agreed that "don't ask, don't tell" repeal might still garner bipartisan support.

Barron said new opportunities to work with the Republican majority in the House would not be "sexy" but might be promising nonetheless, as he ticked through a list that included reworking Social Security, encouraging health insurance competition, and altering the tax code.

As Republicans revisit taxes and the federal deficit, Barron saw an opportunity for LGBT activists to push for optional personal savings accounts that move toward privatizing Social Security. From his perspective, this would help level the playing field for LGBT Americans, who are currently locked into a Social Security system that does not allow them to pass their survivor benefits along to their partners.

"You'd be able to take a portion of your Social Security tax dollars and put it into a personal savings account that you could leave to your partner or really anyone that you wanted to -- something you're barred from doing today," Barron said.

He also said that LGBT groups could support opening up competition among insurers across state lines so that, no matter where you live in the country, people could purchase plans from insurance companies that provide domestic-partner coverage.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he could see a stand-alone tax equity bill that would equalize tax treatment for same-sex couples drawing support from GOP members who have not traditionally supported LGBT causes.

"We've had initial positive feedback from a number of Republican members of Congress who have never had their name associated with anything that could be seen as an equality measure," Cooper said.

Cooper added that he believed "don't ask, don't tell" repeal could get new life once the pressure of election is over and the Pentagon's working group study is released in early December.

"A number of Republican senators have said that they wanted to have the review process completed before being openly supportive of repeal," he said. "It would look really horrible to have all those things lined up and to miss the opportunity to be on the right side of history."

But overall, because the election centered around jobs and economy, Denis Dison of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund anticipated that many LGBT Americans would be in for a surprise.

"I think a lot of people will wake up on Wednesday morning and say, 'Oh, my God, we're going to be in the desert for a little while,'" said Dison, director of communications.

Dison said it was tactically brilliant for the Tea Party movement and Republicans to steer clear of social-issue discussions such as gay rights and abortion because many of their candidates trend so far to the right of the nation as a whole.

"I think there will be a rude awakening at some point," Dison said. "I understand that people are so fed up with unemployment and joblessness, but a lot of candidates will have been elected that do not reflect mainstream American values when it come to LGBT equality."

Progressive groups said they would turn their attention from legislation to initiatives that can be achieved at the federal agency level.

"Federal policy changes will be one of the few ways that we can exact change for LGBT people at federal level," said Fred Sainz, director of communications for the Human Rights Campaign. Sainz said that could include "close to 100 different policy changes" that are "completely the purview of the president," most of which don't require an executive order.

In health care, for instance, as the Department of Health and Human Services implements regulations for the newly passed Affordable Care Act, Sainz said HRC will push for state health insurance exchanges to make coverage available to same-sex partners and their children; for the new health disparity and data collection efforts to include sexual orientation and gender identity; and for the benefits package offered by insurance plans to cover gender transition treatments.

Sainz added that he was concerned about having to combat some "insidious" antigay attacks from conservatives.

"The new form of homophobia may not be as blatant at the Federal Marriage Amendment," he said of the 2004 and 2006 efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. "It will be more like McCain saying he's not opposed to 'don't ask, don't tell' but he wants hearings on the Pentagon study."

Richard Socarides, who was working in the Clinton White House during the 1994 election when Democrats took a big hit in the midterms, said he didn't see the night so much in ideological terms.

"I think people too often make the mistake of looking to previous administrations for lessons in how to deal with present-day problems," he said, adding that the '94 comparison wasn't particularly instructive to him.

"The voters sent several messages tonight, but one is clearly that they are tired of the highly politicized partisan battles that go on nonstop in Washington," he said. "The important thing for Obama to do now is to say, 'I got the message loud and clear, and I'm ready to work with others in governing.'"

Socarides said the Democrats' "big strategic mistake" on LGBT issues was failing to push through DADT repeal and maybe even ENDA in 2009 while they were taking an entire year to shepherd health care reform.

But from a broader perspective, he added that White House insiders had been too insular, even with people in their own party.

"If you were not part of the Chicago group and there from the beginning, they weren't really interested in your ideas; it didn't matter what party you were from," he said.

But he said the LGBT movement also had some takeaways from the last two years.

"We have to press our enemies and press our friends harder," he said, "and also we all need to work together. This snarky infighting that goes on amongst our side just does not do us any good."

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