Scroll To Top

Gillibrand Keeps Up the Push for Equality

Gillibrand Keeps Up the Push for Equality


As 2012 nears, the roster of offensive and defense bouts for equality has never appeared more crowded, with state ballot measures, federal lawsuits, and a basket of legislative priorities all pending. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York represents a state that achieved one of the highest profile victories to date, and now she wants to expand what she calls the "consistent drumbeat of advocacy and persuasive narrative" to a new frontier with a bill to remove adoption barriers for LGBT families.

The Every Child Deserves a Family Act would prohibit federal funding for entities that discriminate against prospective adoptive or foster parents on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. In this way, the legislation uses the power of the government's $8 billion child welfare purse to target discriminatory laws against LGBT couples and individuals in more than 30 states, and help children find homes. An estimated 400,000 children are in the U.S. foster care system, with over 100,000 waiting to be adopted.

"Every time a vote is called, every time there is an opportunity for a lawsuit to be heard, it moves our agenda forward," Gillibrand said Tuesday in her first interview on the bill's introduction. "Every battle we fight also creates more converts and more advocates who will support our cause."

Rep. Pete Stark of California reintroduced the bill in the House in May, and it currently has more than 75 cosponsors, including Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the first Republican to support repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Gillibrand's move was anticipated for more than seven months, during which time she tried to secure original Republican cosponsors before introducing the bill in time for National Adoption Month in November.

Her bill has five original cosponsors, all Democrats, but she expressed optimism about obtaining bipartisan support. She said a "good handful" of Republicans have shown interest in the bill, which offers lawmakers a "unique" way to approach equality through the issue of child welfare.

"I think we can develop support in places where someone may not support full marriage equality or may not support other rights," she said. "They may care at least about our youth and making sure that healthy families are available to take care of them."

Like DOMA repeal, the bill faces challenging odds in the current Congress, but opponents already have issued alarms calling the measure an attack on religious liberty that would reduce the number of children who get adopted or placed into foster care. They point to locations including Washington, D.C., and Illinois, where Catholic Charities stopped providing services rather than recognize prospective LGBT parents in compliance with new marriage equality and civil unions laws.

Gillibrand addressed the criticism by making a distinction between public and private adoptions. Proponents of her bill say that Catholic Charities, one of the country's largest social service providers, is involved with less than 5% of public adoptions, which means the legislation would have a minimal impact on the agency.

"This law only deals with public adoptions," she said. "The law has no impact on private adoptions and Catholic Charities, and other religiously affiliated organizations are free to continue to operate as they have in private adoptions. In states that already have nondiscrimination laws regarding adoption and foster care placements, religious organizations, such as Catholic Charities, are already required to comply with those laws, so our bill would not change that."

The bill arrives as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares for the historic markup Thursday of the Respect for Marriage Act that would repeal DOMA. Gillibrand, who is not a member of the committee, expects the panel to approve the bill, although with an uncertain Senate vote and opposition from Republican leadership in the House, she acknowledged that the growing body of federal litigation may provide a "more successful route earlier" than the legislative track.

"It's an important step to building the momentum for repeal," she said of the anticipated committee vote. "You just have to keep putting these issues on the national agenda because not only does it force my colleagues in the Senate to take a vote and actually make a decision and come down on one side or the other, but it continues the national debate about it."

Driving the dialogue is also a theme of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who is credited with passing the marriage equality bill in a Republican-controlled senate this year. The governor issued an explicit call to end DOMA in a well-received speech to his state's LGBT advocacy group, the Empire State Pride Agenda, last week.

"Governor Cuomo has taken a leadership role that's been instrumental in early successes not only in New York State but also in other jurisdictions," said Gillibrand. "I welcome his advocacy. I think the more local, state and national leaders call for repeal of DOMA, it challenges other local state and national leaders to make a decision about what they think."

While she remains focused on garnering bipartisan support for her adoption bill, the senator said she expects to be an "aggressive" advocate on DOMA repeal as the legislation advances. Even with a marriage equality law in her state, not every member of the New York congressional delegation supports the Respect for Marriage Act, including a Republican who now represents her former upstate congressional district.

President Barack Obama has endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act, which would allow the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages but would not compel recognition from individual states. Gillibrand told The Advocate last May that she thought the president should support full marriage equality before the 2012 election, and she reiterated that position on Tuesday.

"I hope he does," she said. "I think he should. I think he should be a president who supports full equality for all Americans."

Asked whether the president had a duty to denounce constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage on the ballot in Minnesota and North Carolina, the senator declined to prescribe a course of action.

"The president is a strong supporter of equality and I know that to be true because when he's had an opportunity to enforce DOMA, he's told his Department of Justice not to enforce it," she said. "I think he will take whatever position he thinks is important in these state-by-state disputes. I think he is someone who not only singed the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' but is someone who does believe that the future of this nation will be full marriage equality."

Gillibrand sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which she said continues to monitor how the military implements "don't ask, don't tell" repeal. Questions surround benefits for gay service members not excluded by DOMA or provisions in the U.S. code, for instance, but the senator said the committee wants to give the military a "little more time" before holding a hearing.

"We will address any shortcoming through the legislative process if the military isn't able to do the transition effectively, but to be honest, I really have faith that the military will get this done," she said. "If they don't, we'll help them."

In addition to legislation, Gillibrand sees a shortcut to advancing equality through her Off the Sidelines campaign, an initiative that seeks to get more women involved in electoral politics. An enthusiastic financial and personal supporter of Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, she called the prospective first openly gay U.S. senator "an extraordinary candidate" who would bring "effective personal advocacy" on LGBT issues.

More broadly, the senator argued that women bring a "sense of injustice and inequality from their own lives" combined with "consensus-building and compromise" that helps to expedite equality legislation. She expressed confidence that in a high-stakes election year for women in Congress, the six female Democratic incumbents in the Senate would keep their seats, and the chamber would gain a few more new women.

"If more women are in Congress, we will achieve full equality faster because I think, more often than not, our female colleagues are the ones who advocate for equality," she said, noting that Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the lead Republican sponsor for "don't ask, don't tell" repeal. "I think we will see leadership out of the women senators on this adoption bill. I think we will see leadership out of female senators on DOMA repeal."

One of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate and a vigorous supporter of LGBT issues, Gillibrand, who occupies the seat formerly held by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is often mentioned among the Democratic Party's rising stars. Asked about her own political future, she cheerfully insisted that her horizon extends only to her current office for now.

"My goal is to be the best senator from New York I could possibly be, and I'm really hopeful that I win my full six-year term in election next year," she said.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Julie Bolcer